From work

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.
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The Rise of Peggy Olson, the Fall of Don Draper and the Affective Life of Capitalism

So the new season of Mad Men started last night. The official posters, with Don looking at a pyschadelic print, aren’t out and out historical gaffes like this Netflix ad, but they point to a lot of the problems the show had last season. Season six was, I think, one of false starts and frustrations.  A lot  them came from having to sustain a long-running show that’s worked through a lot of its premises, but others point to something interesting that’s been there since the start. Mad Men started out as fundamentally a show about hierarchies. (“It’s a hierarchy!” Ken cried desperately in last night’s premier.  Well, it was – and largely still is – but more on that later.) Peggy’s first day tour of the office showed us the lay of the land in all its beautiful horror. We knew part of the long arc would be about how the people at the top – whom we’d more or less been asked to identify with – had their positions challenged. But the show’s strength was always in showing the everyday cruelties of the old order.  Many of the best episodes, like “The Gold Violin” from season 2, or “Signal 30” from season 5, have the feel of a certain kind of old school New Yorker story. As Vivian Gornick described it in “The End of the Novel of Love”:

In the fifties John Cheever’s stories of marital disillusion seemed profound. That famous climatic moment in Cheever when the husband realizes holds him in contempt, or the wife knows husband is committing adultery, these moments delivered an electric charge. The knowledge encoded in them seemed literally stunning, leaving the characters riven, their lives destroyed. Who, after all, could go on after this? Then came the shocker – the thing that made the story large, awesome, terrible – they did go on like this. 

This describes the lives of many of Mad Men‘s characters throughout the early seasons. Then, of course, as Gornick recounts “within a generation . . there was divorce. And psychotherapy. And sex and feminism and drugs . . . ” Some of the suspense came in who would crack first, and how, and at what cost.  Betty seemed doomed if she was forced to live outside her illusions – this was true and not. Would it be Pete unable to live with his own contempt, or would Trudy beat him to it? Don and Roger, while threatened by certain aspects of social change, are poised to benefit from others – they trade in their spouses with little reprisal. Except, of course, that they discover nothing has really changed. For Roger, this works insofar as we can experience his semi-nihilistic questing as a comedy, but it’s left us impatient with Don.  The wonderful Emily Nussbaum pretty much nails  the corner into which Don had been painted by the end of last season. The aside about sneering and swingers is interesting too: in an odd way, our favorite horn dog is a bit of a prude: Roger might have the most depressing stoned group sex ever, but he’s still game and mildly amused. Don’s still caught up in the guilt and secrecy. (The show’s attempts to show him as kinky, like with the prostitute who smacks him, fall flat, the way so many shows still use mild kink as a shorthand for sad people having sad sex.) I remember reading somewhere about when the Diggers who set up a free store, they had to explain to people who tried to shoplift why that was impossible at a free store. There may be sex in the streets in 1968, but Don still prefers the neighbor and hotel rooms with heavy curtains. No one needs to tell Don there’s no such thing as free love. The scene when his daughter discovers him is devastating – but where can we go from there?

The problem gets more complicated – but it still feels like a problem – when we think about the show’s broader historical and social canvas. Here too, the show was wonderful in its depiction of the repressive Before. But once that order is shaken, it has been largely unable or unwilling to present anyone who stands for this challenge in a serious way. African-American characters appear in the background, and occasionally make a telling comment. The counterculture mostly exists insofar as it embodies aspects of Don’s psychodrama. (Or, Betty’s, in the first and strongest episode of season six. Her implicit sympathy for the hippie kids was a fascinating thread that was unfortunately dropped.) And then there was the hippie punching throughout season six. Or, rather, hippie stabbing. When Abe and Peggy argued about civil rights and women’s rights a few seasons back, some of it was an easy gibe at Abe, but some of it actually got at the ways it’s easier for people to support justice from a distance, when it doesn’t bring their own position into question or even just make for an awkward conversation. But by the end of season six he was mostly shown as a fool. He becomes absurd the way the Beatniks Don smokes up with in the first season is absurd.

Now, it’s certainly true that in any time period, even one of mass political action, the majority of people are not activists, and mostly experience change through the mundane of their daily lives. The episode on King’s assassination was trying to show that in an interesting way. But there’s something perverse in the way that the show keeps suggesting that while the old ways were unjust, those who directly challenge them are fools. 
Which brings us to Peggy. Some of the publicity for this season – along with the shot late last season of her in Don’s characteristic pose – suggests this will be “her season.” It’s an intriguing possibility – perhaps the most radical and astute solution to the Don Draper problem would be if he simply fades away – like characters in The Wire, who are significant only for the ecological niche they inhabit. It also points to show’s ambivalence about social change, though. That awful Netflix ad isn’t just grotesquely historically ignorant. It also points to a certain reading of Peggy – she’s a feminist, kind of, but not part of feminism: she represents change and the struggle for respect through her story, but doesn’t have a relationship to the organized social movements of the time. Now, when you point things like this out, everyone rushes to explain to you, yet again, the difference between art and politics, or to complain you’re looking for agitprop. What is interesting to me about that is the idea that any portrayal of collective movements – or even of characters having some relationship to them – would automatically detract from complexity. Certainly it is easy to imagine a poorly executed story line where Betty or Peggy or Joan get their Consciousness Raised. But would it really be so impossible for some one in the Mad Men universe to have some real relationship to this movement, or the Civil Rights movement, or the anti-war movement, which captured the imagination of so many? And if we can’t imagine it doing so, what does that tell us? 
At the same time, though, I think Peggy’s story does reveal something interesting about contemporary feminism and its discontents. I cringed a bit at the end of last night’s episode, when she cries alone in her apartment after a bad day at the office, so lonely she wanted the plumber to hang out.  But the thing is, Peggy’s rise has always been more interesting precisely because it’s in advertising, a field that can’t possibly live up to the creative and personal energies she has put into it – as so many of our jobs cannot, not because we more properly should put them all into our home and family lives, but because of that little thing the show is actually largely about: capitalism. Much is made about Don and Peggy’s affinity for each other because they are both outsiders who struggled for respect. But that outsider status also gives them a certain take on what they are doing – they take advertising seriously and are good at it precisely because in some ways they aren’t taking it seriously – they know how to manipulate want and need, if often unconsciously, and they know it can always be manipulated because it can never be satisfied. We want Peggy to triumph, but we don’t have illusions about what triumph looks like in the venue she’s in. (Not, one should note, the venue she has ‘chosen’, simply the one she found herself in.) This doesn’t mean that Peggy is an unappealing, proto-Sheryl Sandberg or some such. It just means that when it comes to work, we are all still living in the Before. 

On Obsession

I’ve mentioned before my compulsive need to read The New Yorker in order, no matter how far behind I get, and no matter how absurd it feels to see people’s posts or hear things in conversation and file them away for three months later.  So there I am, going through the March 18th issue of The New Yorker, ready to throw it across the room because all the thoughts in the world about my own relative privilege in life still can’t make me cope with a book review that’s half about the author’s two kitchens, one on the Upper West Side, (sadly small because it was made for servants), and one in Umbria. But then, in the back pages, in the stuff there really should be no reason but compulsion not to skip (a review of an exhibition now closed), I came across one of the most stunning photographs I’ve seen in a long time.

The photograph shows a woman is standing on a ladder, slightly hunched. She’s wearing a brown coat, dark slacks, and high top sneakers. Her hair is thick, dark, and curled, cropped just below her ears. She’s looking down at the tools in her right hand and dangling a cigarette from her left. Something about her clothes and style say “sixties,” though the overall feel is so ethereal that I’m tempted to repress  all my historicist training and call the image “timeless.” Behind her is a giant canvass that fills the frame, a painting-as-sculpture with a center point from which spring thick gray ridges, carved with a palette knife. The center hits just above her head, a giant crushing halo. Apparently, when viewed properly, it generates its own light, a result of the mica spread across it.

The photograph is of Jay DeFeo in 1960, working on “The Rose;” the occasion for its appearance in The New Yorker is the (now closed) show at the Whitney.   DeFeo was part of the San Francisco Beat scene and worked on “The Rose” from ’58-’66, stopping only when she was evicted from her Filmore Street apartment. The work weighs more than a ton, so they had to knock out a wall and remove it by crane. When she died in 1989 it was in a conference room behind a protective wall.

I don’t want to say the obvious things: about people who say women aren’t as good at [fill it in] because they’re not capable of single-minded obsessions, about Big Drips and flowers and the problem with flowers, and whether a 2,300 pound gray rose might solve them. I know that power is supposed to come from the work, not the struggle it took to make it. (“DeFeo was not a great artist,” Peter Schjeldahl writes, “But the ferocity of her commitment and the anguish of her frustration make her a totemic figure for people who can understand those sentiments from experience.”)

I’m not sure I believe this anymore, though: that thinking about the struggle or the life is a distraction, a concession to our craven celebrity culture or what have you. I’ve started to think that all real art is in some sense about how it has come into being, how and why it exists, why it needed to.  Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks, from whence this blog, is all about this. There are four notebooks. The one that contains the novel the protagonist is writing is the thinnest, but it’s compelling because you see how the elements from the others are reworked and, inevitably, reduced when rendered this way. Of the novel within the novel, you think: look at all that went into making this smaller thing. Then, inevitably, of how much more of Lessing must have gone in to the making of Notebooks.  

What does it mean to work on a single painting everyday for seven years? Is it a beautiful story, an unfortunate sideline in an otherwise more productive career, or a full-blown cautionary tale?

People talk a lot about how we romanticize destructive obsessions, and there’s something to that. But what about someone like DeFeo? She’s not neglecting her children (she had none) or stabbing her partner or doing any of the things that, when done by artists, lead to tired arguments about whether we can “enjoy” their work. What does it mean to call this kind of obsession destructive?  We tell people to find their passion – but what that often means in practice is this.  Or else it means, find a way to feel good about your job, despite the fact that even the best ones are “too small for people” as one of Studs Terkel’s interviewees put it. In one of Miranda July’s stories, a character talks about her friends, the ones who work in the arts, who have decently creative jobs with nice sounding names. But none of them, she says, are as good as just singing La.

When I look at that photograph, I don’t think about the things people usually talk about when they talk about a the creation of a Big Important Work of Art: about sacrifice, or selfishness, or even obsession. DeFeo was apparently a beloved member of the artistic circle in San Francisco at the time. But even if she had been a loner, I don’t think I’d see that. The photograph has an obviously religious cast, with the giant “halo” and her body positioned something like Christ carrying the cross, ascending the ladder in front of her artwork as if towards the ceiling of her own chapel.  I’m sympathetic to the view that art or writing or any creative endeavor is just work like any other, and we shouldn’t talk about it in such metaphysical terms. But the perhaps manipulative framing of this photograph aside, it’s hard not to see a project like DeFeo’s as a sacred calling.

What is an artist like DeFeo doing, if not constructing a life, the kind of life she finds bearable? The aim is not to create a beautiful object, it’s to live a life in pursuit of beauty.  All meaning is constructed: here is where she finds hers. Perhaps this is not unique to the arts; perhaps this is what all unalienated work would look like. But it’s something.