Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Misty Copeland

In another life, like countless girls, I spent countless hours dreaming about ballet. I subscribed to Dance Magazine, I sewed ribbons into shoes, and I watched a VHS tape we had of the Kirov's production of Swan Lake dozens of times. I read Gelsey Kirkland's memoir on the beach and cried.

I wasn't very good. But I kept practicing, and I cared about it deeply. I think it was invaluable for my young physical self growing up in a very anti-sports family, and to my love of the arts.  One summer I went to a ballet camp and there was this imposing teacher everyone was scared of. But one day he broke character and had us huddle around and talked about the worthiness of our calling. He did a probably offensive but very funny imitation of a ditzy high school girl and asked if those girls made fun of us for dancing. He told us, just remember, what do they do? Nothing. What do you do? You dance. He made it sound sacred.

When I got to college (a woman's college I'd picked in part because they had a dance program), I realized quickly a lot of budding feminists saw ballet as a very bad thing.  It fetishized little girls, it gave them eating disorders, it was aristocratic, elitist, etc. etc. I could see where they were coming from, but my heart wasn't in it. Later in graduate school when I met the Marxist who would become my advisor, I sheepishly mentioned I had been a dancer once, in another life. "Ah, she said. That's so wonderful! The physical discipline!" That's probably the moment I knew she would be an important figure to me.

Today Misty Copeland was promoted from soloist to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. She is the first African-American woman to reach that rank in that company.

This profile in the New Yorker by Rivka Galchen from a little while back does a good job outlining why this is such a big deal. I've had a lot of conversations over the years defending my love of ballet with especially women who had bad experiences with dance teachers who told them to go on a diet or who just can't get past the whole aristocratic, Court of Louis XIV thing, or the hierarchy that makes "soloist" and "principle" such important categories, or for whom the whole aesthetic is corrupted by its idealization of weightlessness. I get all that. But like my Marxist professor, I think that some of the things bourgeois culture has made are too beautiful to be left to the bourgeoisie, even if when you got to the NYBT these days you have fucking David Koch's name on your ticket.  I'm also the kind of Marxist who has a certain impulse to defend the guild-like qualities of worlds like ballet. (Copeland even points out in that profile how people assume ballet is her hobby, and she reminds them she's in a union.)

The New Yorker piece also does a good job outlining how often throughout history black ballet dancers have come up against the aesthetic prejudices of the art's gatekeepers, looking not only for young dancers with talent or even turnout but who would fit "uniformly" into an ensemble. It tells the stories of dancers like Raven Wilkinson, a dancer with the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Michaela DePrince who have made their careers abroad after come up against these kinds of barriers in the U.S. Shockingly, when the Dance Theater of Harlem was temporarily closed because of financial difficulties (which of course points to a not-minor aspect of the problem), only one of its dancers was offered a job by a major American company. This is a small step in a slow moving world but one that will genuinely move lots of us former bunheads, even those who, unlike Copeland, Wilkinson or DePrince, lacked for talent rather than opportunity.

Relatedly, I've always been more of a NYCB girl, but who wants to go see ABT with me?

Monday, March 23, 2015


March 20th was blessedly the first day of spring and also would have been my Baubie's 100th birthday. She lived 95 of them about as well as you can. She grew up in Minneapolis the oldest of five sisters, had two daughters and four grandchildren. She was a social worker and a faculty wife who loved her college community - much of my stubborn romanticism about academic life is thanks to her, her bookshelves, and her stories about Saul Bellow's various wives. She was a widow for al...most thirty years who remade herself in every way. I first read the New Yorker at her apartment by the lake in Chicago. She took me to the Art Institute countless times and taught me to remember one thing in particular from each visit because you can't remember them all. The last time she visited New York we went to see Avenue Q and she was a good sport about the puppet sex. She stayed at the Wellington hotel that visit and this week I happened to walk by it on St. Patrick's Day and suddenly felt her presence among all the drunken kids stumbling around. I remembered taking the bus with her downtown, talking about Mary McCarthy. Those were my people, she said, the college girls of the Depression, a little eccentric but had their heads screwed on straight. She loved books but wanted to know why so many great writers had such a pessimistic view of the world. I never came up with a good answer to that one. She died just over a year Eli was born and when I found out I was having a boy I had a dream that she said "I thought we'd never have another boy again!" Family legend has it she once had five boys call her in a single night to ask her to the same dance - I can believe it looking at this picture. Happy birthday Baubs. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

8 Approaches to the Papers/Grading Dillemma

If you're any kind of an academic, or spend anytime with anyone who is, the end of a semester comes with the neurotic repetition of an essential truth: we hate grading papers. But the time to think about what to about that comes at the planning stage, so I thought I'd do a January post about this eternal question.

A while back, Rebecca Shuman had a piece on Slate that proposed a simple solution: stop doing it. Stop giving papers, stop grading them. Like a lot of her pieces, it was a combination of a solid insight with broad generalization and pure-Slate contrarian click-bait. I like the impulse at the core of it: if something isn't working, maybe we should not do it any more. But there's also the very-Slate like impulse that everyone out there is doing one conventional thing mindlessly, and only you are brave enough to call them out. The truth is, there a lots of professors out there with creative approaches to teaching writing and to using writing in a range of classes, and there's also a very interesting literature out there on it. Partly to clarify my own thinking, and partly because I think this might be useful to other folks, I put together a list of some of what I think I've figured out after teaching composition, creative writing and literature for fifteen years. Some might apply more to folks teaching in one discipline more than others, and it's probably impossible to do all these things in every class, but it's probably possible to use some of them in any class.

It's tricky to talk about attribution of teaching ideas and lesson plans - ideally we should all be talking about these things and circulating them such that it's impossible to claim total ownership. But, because so many people are convinced almost all writing about teaching is without merit (an odd position for teachers to take, to say the least), I want to note some writers and thinkers who have been helpful to me with this, though in some cases I encountered their work indirectly. These include Ken Bain (whose What the Best College Teachers Do is an invaluable resource), John Dewey, Peter Elbow, Donald Barthomae, James Moffat, Mina Shaughnessy, lots of essays from Radical Teacher and Rethinking Schools, and countless colleagues at multiple universities, especially at NYU and LaGuardia Community College.

1) Spend more time designing your writing assignments and less time grading them. Write your writing assignments BEFORE your reading list/syllabus. Lots of people talk about "minimal marking" but often we miss the first half of this equation, or it falls by the wayside as we get into crunch time. Very often I've looked at a piece of student writing, wondered where it could have gone wrong, only to realize the student has done exactly what I asked them to do - and that that was the problem. Ken Bain is very good on this. When you're designing a course, start by thinking about what you want students to be able to do, and the assignments should come from that. Create a syllabus and reading list that will allow you to do this.

2) Try to give students "real" rather than "fake" problems to solve.  Have them create knowledge rather than simply reporting it. Ken Bain is also very good on this, and to me it's at the heart of what Dewey means when he talks about his belief that education must be, not preparation for experience, but must itself be an experience. This can mean a number of different things: in a composition class where we read Terkel's Working, students interviewed people they knew about their working lives. Colleagues in sociology have guided students through ethnographies of their own neighborhoods and proposed changes to the urban landscape of their own college, applying what they have learned from urban theorists.  Not so incidentally, this is also the best way to prevent plagiarism. If you ask students to write about light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet, I won't say you *deserve* plagiarized papers, exactly, but let's just say it's a foreseeable outcome. Some of my LaGuardia colleagues do a brilliant project where students edit wikipedia entries. Not only can't they plagiarize, as one of them noted on FB, the students can note with pride that they will be the ones getting plagiarized.

3) Think about and identify what you think good writing is in your field, and what kind of writing makes the most sense for them based on the kind of class and level. You probably didn't write an honest to god academic paper until grad school - does it make sense to give undergrads that task and be upset when they fail at it? Is a simplified version of this the best approach? Would a book review make more sense?  A literature review? A letter to a friend about what they're doing in the class? If you're in English, do you think of "creative" assignments - the ones you and your students have fun with - rewriting a classic poem in a contemporary vein, rewriting a scene from Shakespeare as a Western, say - as something they do on the side but they shouldn't get much credit for? Do you think of it as a reward for "mastering the basics?" Rethink those assumptions. Memorizing a poem and writing a reflection about it might show as much understanding/engagement of the text as a standard essay prompt - why not recognize it as such.

4) Rotate assignments and due dates between students.  A lot of professors asks students to take responsibility for presenting or starting the discussion of a certain reading. In my experience it's rarer to take the next step, to connect this to writing. Having them connect written and spoken work is likely to improve the quality of both, spaces out your grading, and lets students work around their schedules.

5) Think about staging, cumulative assignments, and portfolios as well as revision.  We say that writing is a process and revision is a process but our schedule often makes this an afterthought.  If it's important, we should bake it into the time, talk about it and spend time on it in class. If students have a meaningful chance to return to the work, all those comments you write on them feel like less of a waste.

6) Make student writing a text in the class and make student writing public. Whether they workshop or you bring in sample essays or share them on line, it only makes sense that students have examples of what they're being asked to do. If they have some sense of a public audience, whether through a blog or through their work in class, they're more likely to take it seriously than if they know it's going to you and then to a drawer. Even better are truly pubic projects like ones where they have a chance to present at a student conference, have some publication submission goal, or the wikipedia project I mentioned above. Relatedly, I heard a great presentation by some poets at a conference on collaborative student writing, and I'd love to work with that,  though I haven't yet.

7) Learn to read student writing as a teacher - not an editor.  Your job isn't to correct this for publication - it's to help the student. This is minimal marking, but it's not just that. You're not really marking a manuscript at all, you're talking to a person. Think about what you think they need to hear. David Bartholomae talks about a student paper in a Basic Writing class on Sartre that was in the traditional sense incomprehensible. It had sentences like this: "To elaborate on the subject matter. the principle of existentialism is logic, but stupid in itself."* Obviously, to mark the fragments here or send the student to a grammar book would be beside the point. As Bartholomae notes, he in a sense had to learn to read student writing like that. In this case, he argues, the student had a coherent point that they knew how to communicate: fuck you and your assignment. How to respond to that was the real question. We have to read student writing as a communication, not product. This goes at more advanced levels too: Bartholomae also tells a story about the most important comment he got on his graduate school writing, when he was being overly verbose and pompous, as beginning graduate students are want to do. The comment? "Please don't do that again." He knew what it meant.

8) Contract Grading.  In many of my classes, I have taken at least half of Shuman's advise: I don't grade papers. I do give them, (though many don't look like traditional "papers). I give comments, and then I grade the portfolios at the end of the semester which I combine with participation grades. I started this in Creative Writing classes to avoid the "who says my story is a B? Do I change the end to get an A" problem but I've expanded it. In my experience, it makes students work harder, not less hard, and they're more open to read and take in comments if there's not a grade attached. (Understandable! If I got a rejection and comments when I've submitted something, I wouldn't really want to read the comments.)

So those are some ideas. Like I said, you can't really do all of them all the time, but they're worth considering. And if you think you have so much content you really don't have time to think about it, or to talk to your students about writing, then yes, maybe you should consider something other than writing as a means to evaluate them.

* From David Bartholomae, Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford St. Martins, 2005.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Quick Hit: Baldwin and the Magazines

In a 1984 interview,  Julius Lester asked Baldwin about his early days after the war as a writer publishing reviews and essays "for publications like The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary and Partisan Review" Baldwin described the people he met through these publications as a kind of "Olympus":  
"Dwight MacDonald told me that I was "terribly smart." I certainly learned a lot from them, though I could not tell you exactly what I learned. A certain confidence in myself, perhaps." 
Out of curiosity, I looked up all the bylines where Baldwin originally published the essays in his now classic first two collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name. Here they are: Commentary, Harper's, New Leader, Partisan Review, The Reporter, The New York Times Book Review, Encounter, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Le Preuve.  The Fire Next Time was published in its entirety in the New Yorker, Baldwin's first published essay in a national magazine was for The Nation, where his later work frequently appeared, and he was on their board during the last years of his life.

Of course no recent particular event and no particular magazine of note that maybe would have been predisposed to miss the work of an African-American who is probably the greatest essayist in American history and any prominent "serious" publications missing from the list  are just a coincidence.

(The limitations of my library's archive are such that I haven't been able to confirm if Baldwin ever wrote for the publication that shall not be named. If so, would be very curious to see where and when.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

We Are All Close Readers Now: On Season Five

I wanted to be the 45,931th person to blog each episode of Mad Men this season, but it was not to be. I could try to be noble and say David Simon's arguments got to me instead of, you know, life.  Just as a counterpoint to Simon, though, I think it's kind of awesome that so many people spend so much time dissecting them, from acting and costuming to character motivations to each period reference. Sure, there are more important things we should be doing, but when is there not? When I was a kid there were lots of earnest pieces by the serious concerned types about how TV was making everyone "passive." Now these serious (semi-serious?) people say that TV is brilliant art and it's the interactive 2.0 stuff that's killing us, what with how we're all "distracted" instead of "absorbed."  I've spent more than my share of time around my English department comrades lamenting how hard it is to get people to close read, or how students resist analysis by saying "they didn't really think that much about it." But of course people love to "close read" as soon as there's something they're invested in, and no one is saying Weiner doesn't think this shit through. 

And so, at this belated hour with two of thirteen episodes to go, ten ways of looking at season five:

1) Over at slate, John Swansburg asks the big question: Is it possible Don is actually becoming something like a better person?  Weiner of course comes from The Sopranos, where the whole arc was about Tony setting out half-heartedly to see if he could be redeemed, when it was actually clear all along that he couldn't. As with Tony, we forgive Don too much because of his charms, but of course we're operating in a very different moral universe here (no matter what that stupid fantasy murder scene thought it was trying to do), one where redemption would seem to be more possible. The real obstacle seems to be the narrative one: this is a serious show, so it has to be a tragedy, right?

I remember reading Crime and Punishment way back and being struck by how Raskolnikov kept falling back into justifying his actions after he'd seemed to have a breakthrough. The Sopranos used the long form to capture this even more acutely. We think we have epiphanies, we think someone's "life can change in an instant," as the melodramas would have it, but more likely the change is just another thought we had about ourselves. Don sunk low in the fourth season, and seems to be crawling back up, but who knows. It's not just that these multi-season shows can have characters ebb and flow over years instead of having the one arc Christopher Moltisanti thought he should have, it's that we get the feeling we're dipping into lives that continue off-stage, a whole texture of experiences that are as much like the formless unfolding of lives - or history - than the constructed lives of tragic personalities.

Of course the tragedy could be that he becomes a better person too late: one of those men who becomes such a devoted husband/father the second time around, in part because the first set can never forgive him. I loved Ken's line about Don and Megan's cool whip act, how it's a twist on the normal schtick because "they actually like each other." Our girl from Montreal isn't at all the Betty 2.0 she seemed to be last season. That would be a very take-this-to-the-seventies outcome, but it feels pretty unsatisfying. 

2) I'm struck again and again by how, with all its bang up research, the thing that really makes the period detail work is that it's a little "off." And as with The Sopranos, the dialogue is also a bit off - a little over the top, a little too metaphoric. It fills in what would be outside the dialogue in a story, punching it up to where it feels real instead of being realistic in a mimetic sense. This shit isn't easy to do. Likewise the reference points are not inaccurate, just not the trajectories or reference points you're expecting. Even the Beatles thing hit at this - the unexpected choice, the last song off the album, after an episode of fake-Beatles. Being interested in the period I've seen enough films and documentaries that hit the exact same notes to realize how important this is. It's the sixties as lived before people knew what "the sixties" were.

3) Hey, do you remember when the woman who played Daphne on Frasier was pregnant and instead of writing the pregnancy into the character or trying to disguise it they put her in a fat suit? Yeah. Fat suits and fake chins need to die. I had a problem with the Peggy stuff in the first season but there you could at least make a case for it. There's no excuse for such a perfectionist show to have something so visually unconvincing, as if we don't know what non-thin bodies look like and will just accept the signifier. Find something reasonable to do with Betty Draper or let her go.

4) Speaking of pregnancies, what happened to little Kevin? Yes, yes, Joan's mom is at home, and yes there was no attachment parenting in 1966 but she seems awfully unencumbered.  Mad Men has done a great job with Sally, but Bobby, Gene and Kevin all seem to follow the pattern of existing as plot points. Obviously there are practical reasons for this but it would be nice to see a little of how these little ones affect the texture of these everyday lives.

5) Also speaking of pregnancies, is that memory out of Peggy's life for good? Narratively speaking it seems so. I want her to triumph as much as anyone (which is to say, a lot), but it doesn't seem likely that she would have put this behind her in any meaningful way - as far as we can tell she only discussed it honestly with Don once, in "The Suitcase," and even then somewhat obliquely. And from what we know, adoptions of this period proved highly traumatic in the long run.

6) How great that the least angsty of the bunch, Ken, continues his run as the show's one true artist? And too bad for Paul that wishing don't make it so. Like Pete, no one likes him, but unlike Pete, he's not an asshole, just kind of foolish. If he'd kept his mouth shut in his early romance with Joan she could have broke it to him gently and helped him find out he had a talent for gardening or some such and maybe they would have moved to the country together . . . 

7) "Signal 30" and "The Other Woman" were to me the strongest so far. "Signal 30" is a perfect short story - what Cheever or Updike would have written with the benefit of feminist insight. And putting them together, it's striking how much Joan's situation owes to this little worm. Pete's another example of the zig-zag in the long-form approach to storytelling: for a while it seemed like he and Trudy were actually the best-matched couple on the show, but like Pete and, like one suspects, Trudy before too long, we had another thing coming.

8) Speaking of which, Trudy seems the perfect candidate to get radicalized. I'm afraid the show won't totally go there in later seasons out of the misplaced fear of being too explicitly political, but for all the talk about how it would be ahistorical for people on the show to speak from contemporary values, there's a point at which ignoring radicalism will become the real ahistorical path. Joan's too caught up in the games she's learned to play - the feminist insight about femininity as role playing wouldn't be a shock to her at all. Peggy's too invested in her ambition, and Betty's just too Betty. But Trudy is still young, she's obviously well-educated and nobody's fool, and watch out if she finds out just a fraction of what the man she's hitched her star to has been up to. 

9) Speaking of radicalism and the ahistorical, there had really really really better be some payoff with Dawn in the next few episodes.  Seriously, I don't care how realistic you want to make the period's racism, there were, you know, still actual African Americans who have personalities and stories. Start telling them, like, way before yesterday.

10) Is it time for the Mad Men death/suicide pool?  Pete was the early and perhaps too obvious choice, Roger would have made more sense a while back, and Joan - well, can't bear to think about that. My money's on Lane.  

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Dancer and the Dance

This summer I published a poem about Lee Miller in Narrative.  Miller isn't exactly obscure - people interesting in photography, war journalism, or surrealism are probably at least somewhat familiar with her life and work. But she isn't a household name either - I didn't know anything about her until I read Francine Prose's collection of biographic essays about women - many artists in their own right - who have served as "muses." I've been working on a group of poems, short fiction and short essays on other artists I'm interested in for a variety of reasons - people like Jay DeFeo and Isa Genzken and Maria Lassnig and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Again, none of these people are unknown, but they all have fascinating, not-common knowledge stories that having fascinating things to say about obsession, passion, bodies, sex, death, and all the other good stuff. I've worried, though, about how to talk about wanting to do this - it sounds a little old-fashioned: ah, those second wavers with their projects of "rediscovery"! Haven't we found them all by now? Not by a longshot, as it turns out.  

This was on my mind recently when I read this great piece by my friend Joanna Scutts about the usually disappointning results and diminishing returns of the seemingly inexhastable genre of novels about writer's wives, and how they tend to smooth over the uncomfortable details literary biographers deal with. Being in love with a difficult man - who can't relate, these books seem to tell us. In wanting to bring women's stories "from the shadows," are we most interested if the shadow takes the form of a great man? Are we more comfortable with stores of talent squelched and repressed than those who worked through these paradoxes?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Three New-ish Books to Buy

The last couple years I've started keeping track of the books I finish, movies I watch and my favorite magazine articles from the year. Except for the magazine articles, very few are current or even recent, but I've been trying to correct that a little, partly because buying or writing about new books is the best way to support authors and also to have more of a foothold in some of the discussions out there. So, herein your humble blogger pretends to be one of those folks with a steady gig who gets paid to say things like "3 Must Buy New(ish) Books!"

1) The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden, available in a new edition from Phraros.  This is not a new book per say; it was first published in 1976, and its stories appeared in the New Yorker in the years leading up to that. I've written before about how going to college during the canon debates of the 1990s distorted my perception about the idea of "forgotten" works - there was so much debate about a few titles and replacing this particular one with that particular one you could forget all the nooks and crannies of forgotten pathways that were always there to be continually rediscovered. Even a New Yorker writer can get lost. Hayden's book found its way back into print by way of the New Yorker's wonderful fiction podcast, for which Lorrie Moore selected the masterpiece "Day Old Baby Rats," and the immensely popular Cheryl Strayed, who picked the book for Pharos's series of reprints.  Reading Hayden reminds me of Virginia Woolf - you feel more alive when reading her, like you're starting to see in color what you've been seeing in black and white. I wrote more about the book a little while back and have since had the honor of meeting a few of her surviving family members. Grab this book and put in the hands of every short story lover you know.

2) Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich. First, grab the greatest short stories anthology that's lying around your bedroom and read Bernard Malamud's classic story. By the time you finish, before you've even started reading Ulinich's graphic novel, you will realize the genius of its premise. Malamud's story tells of a matchmaker who brags he needs a magic barrel to carry around the photos of all the beautiful young women he has to offer. Read what happens when the shy young rabbinical student comes to seek his mate and his dating foibles and you'll be astounded Ulinich is the first to point out what seems obvious: forget superhighways, tubes, and clouds: the internet is a magic barrel. Ulnich's drawings and words are such a perfect distillation of recognizable and particular experiences that for a few days after reading it I was seeing her distinctive lines in every face I encountered. When Lena Finkle expresses frustration with a novel she's working on and says, as an aside that the novel's contrivances seem ridiculous to her, I immediately thought, yes! Every novel I'd read recently seemed to have exactly the flaws she described. Only this particular picture and words seemed to have any hope of breaking and preserving the artifice in just the right measure. When you go diving in the Magic Barrel, you need the right guide.

3) The Best American Essays, 2014, edited by John Jeremiah SullivanVivian Gornick, Kristen Dombek, Mary Gordon, Lawrence Jackson, Ariel Levy, Zadie Smith. Sometimes they get it right.  Appropriately enough, my very favorite writer, Vivian Gornick, has "Letter from Greenwich Village," while the amazing Kristen Dombek has "Letter from Williamsburg."  I look forward to "Letter from Maspeth" in ten years. Hopeful a LaGuardian will write it.