Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dinner with the President

I have been feeling a little down about the project of the research university for a while, partly because I've seen, through teaching, what a raw deal so many students (particularly, or specifically, undergrads) get when they enter a high-profile research university like NYU, and partly because I've realized that my commitment to education, and my understanding of the goals of the academic project more broadly, are not commensurate with the goals of a large number of my peers and seniors. Before I expand on that, though, let me say that my experiences tonight, to my surprise, have given me fresh hope and new energy.

So here is the full story: About a week ago, I received an invitation to have dinner with the President of NYU, John Sexton. The opportunity was intriguing. I have become disillusioned with the conflicts between the NYU mission to be a university of New York in New York, and what, from the inside, at least, looks like a quest to gain status and rank at the expense of an engagement with the lived reality of this city, which is cosmopolitan in the best and worst ways. NYU, it seemed, was riding the elitist ivory tower image right up there with the most iconoclastic of the ivy league, attracting well-resourced undergrads in order to finance the graduate students who would teach them, while the big-name tenured faculty got on with the business of research. It isn't a terrible model, particularly if you are among the big-name tenured faculty, but for the students, particularly undergrads, who expect to have life-changing, though-altering experiences through their interaction with the best thinkers in the world, finding out that your intellectual heroes have little or no interest in teaching, or worse, great interest, but no time, due to the demands of the tenure track, can be somewhat disappointing. No wonder the academy and its discourse has such a bad reputation in the world out there. You need to be taught academic speak in order to understand the work being produced, but the people most qualified to teach you that would rather be talking to each other than to you, even if you are paying huge amounts of money for the privilege of their attention.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a critique of the faculty themselves. I have benefited immensely from a large number of outstanding intellectuals who have gone above and beyond to help me get to where I am. And I'm also benefiting greatly from the financial management of a university that can afford to fund my education for five years, in exchange for a few semesters of teaching. Heck, I'm one of the biggest beneficiaries of the system. But I'm also critical of that system because it encourages a view of education, the practice of teaching, that labels it the unfortunate baggage of an academic career. Teaching is the despised responsibility. Research and publication are the goal.

Quite frankly, as far as I can tell, there is no point in doing research and publishing work if one has no intention of teaching it. Knowledge is only as good as the use it is put to, and there are only two ways that the knowledge we produce can be put to good use: through our own application of it (i.e. "advocacy" or "public sphere work", both second-class considerations in the academy, and non-entities in the tenure process), or through our teaching of it to others, who will apply it. And we should be publishing so that our insights are available to those who we cannot teach directly.

One clarification here. I don't mean teaching according to the classical model of students sitting at the feet of the master. I mean teaching in the way that it works in a graduate seminar, or in the undergraduate sections I've been lucky enough to work with this semester. Teaching becomes about providing a set of materials and interpretive tools, and then letting the magic that is learning happen. Sometimes, that means that students make use of those tools right there with you, and all of you come away with something from the classroom encounter, and sometimes it means you demonstrate a few ways of using them, and let the students take that away and work their magic, either in private, or, if you're lucky, in the work you get to grade. Either way, no one is the end point of knowledge. It's all a great set of endless possibilities. How exciting!

A while ago, I read this document, published my John Sexton on the university website, in which he proposes a role for "university teachers", as distinct from research faculty. I agree with a lot of what he says, but I find myself opposing the document as a whole on the basis of his caveat that
[the university teacher] will be capable of appreciating and of participating in
the research enterprise. But he or she will have chosen to tilt the
personal mix of research and teaching more dramatically in the direction of
teaching than would be appropriate for one seeking tenure. The university
teacher will dedicate a full professional life to the university as an active
participant in the institution and a premier participant in the education of
students. The university teacher will not be given the lifetime position we
associate with tenure, but the possibility of remaining with the institution for
a whole professional career will be very real

So my big question is: why is it not appropriate for a faculty member who "tilts the mix" of research and teaching more strongly toward the side of teaching, not to get tenure? Why is teaching valued less strongly? What is the mission of the thinking individual if not to disseminate their thoughts? And how, other than through teaching, do we do that?

I didn't get to ask that question tonight, though I'm going to ask it via email once this crazy semester is at an end, in a few weeks time. But I did hear a whole lot from our university president that suggested to me that his goals for the production and dissemination of knowledge line up more strongly with my own than I had previously thought. At the very least, I encountered an openness to conversation about these matters that I had not expected, and that gives me some hope. I still think teaching is undervalued, but I no longer think that the university is all about money and prestige. And that is a big relief.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why students drop out

The Mail and Guardian published an article reporting the findings of a recent study on the reasons behind the high university drop-out rate in South Africa. Top of the list is lack of funds, but more worrying to me is that on that list is: “My lecturers were so inaccessible that I did not think I could approach them for help”.
I think it's wonderful that the MAP program at NYU ensures that students have weekly sections with TAs in small groups, where they can get some individualized attention, but it does concern me that really the only individual attention they get is from graduate students. The classes are just too big, and the faculty under too much pressure (especially if they are on the tenure track) to be able to get to know their students, and without that students really are going to find it difficult to get into graduate programs, and in certain instances, even to find jobs. References are such an important part of the application process, and before that, the mentorship of a faculty member who cares about and believes in the academic project is so important to the process of entering higher education. If it is also, as the survey suggests, important that lecturers be available to students, just to ensure that they finish their degrees, then I'm not sure how effective this system is. I guess I'm just questioning, once again, the state of the academy that deprioritizes teaching, when it is that, in the end, that funds (and should motivate) all other aspects of the University program.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading and work

I just spent three weeks essentially wasting my time, reading a huge, difficult and incredibly dense book that in the end doesn't seem to go anywhere. I get the academic project of theorizing for the sake of challenging assumptions. That is the only way that we stand any chance of making our thinking more effective. But some ways of "doing theory" involve little more than mixing and matching the theoretical (and hence, unproven/unprovable) observations of other theorists, and rapidly moving further and further away from the real world. I'm here to talk about music and what people do with it, for goodness sake, and not what is left if all history is memory, and all memory is (theoretically) unethical.
I guess I'm just frustrated with my coursework, at the moment, which feels like a hinderance to my learning process, rather than the support I think it should be. It will get better, though, if for no other reason than that next semester I get to be more specific about my project, and spend my time doing a whole lot of reading that I've selected for myself. I guess I'm just beginning to judge my reading time as more precious the more other things I have to do, and so I'm resentful of things that don't make productive use of this time.
Alright. Rant over. I'm going to listen to a talk by a scholar who did her research in South Africa, this evening, and then I'm going to go home and read Jeannette Winterson, just because I want to. And then on Wednesday, the Thanksgiving holiday starts! I can't wait.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Afrikaner Feminism, De La Rey's girlfriend, and soft porn as social commentary

T requested a translation for the song I linked to in my last post. I was hoping to find the lyrics or a recording of the whole thing, but failing that, I thought I'd give you a transcription and translation of the lyrics from the fragment on the singer's website.

De La Rey ons wag op jou De La Rey we’re waiting for you
Hier onder die hemel blou Here under the blue sky
Hulle sê jy moet ons ly They say you must lead us
Maar dan moet jy ‘n meisie kry But then you must get a girlfriend

Generaal De La Rey General De La Rey
‘n Boere meisie moet jy kry You must get an Afrikaans (farm) girl
[inaudible] moet sy wees […] she must be
‘n Boere meisie met geen vrees an Afrikaans girl with no fear

For anyone familiar with South African history, the discourse around the fearless boer women who followed their men into the interior of South Africa, worked the land alongside them, and in some instances fought alongside them, is standard revisionist/early feminist fare. It's of course all deeply problematic, not least because the obvious connection between Son-Isha's song and Bok's De La Rey means that Son-Isha's image of a fearless woman is juxtaposed with Bok's helpless woman and child starving in a consentration camp. And of course, De La Rey's imagined girlfriend sits rather strangely alongside Bok's Girls in Bikinis (the second to last track on the De La Rey album), and the various other feminine figures that drift through his album. As always, the women are defined in relation to the men. But to avoid rehearsing that rather simplistic argument, let me make another, I think more provocative connection, with the aid of Wayne Barker and Annie Coombes. The former draws largely on the latter, though in shorter form.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

De La Rey's Girlfriend

Dare I call this a feminist take on the De La Rey debate? (do keep your volume up when you click the link.) A little girl by the name of Son-Isha has recorded a song called "De La Rey Moet 'n Meisie Kry" (De La Rey must get a girlfriend).

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Choir concert

On the 8th of December, SAChoirgirl and NYChoirgirl will be performing in the Stonewall Chorale French Holiday Concert at the Church of the Ascension on the corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street. The program, in addition to some light holiday numbers, includes Poulanc's Gloria, Debussy's Trois Chansons, Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine (one of my favourite choral works ever) and Messiaen's O Sacrum Convivium. If you like French music, or holiday music, or choral music in general, this is the concert for you! Tickets can be obtained directly from me (if you will be seeing me in the interim) or from the choir website (Please put Nicol Hammond into the "who referred you" box), and are $20 each until the day before the performance, or $25 on the day. You can also obtain a season ticket that covers three concerts, for $50. I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

birds, bees and butterflies

It sounds like someone in the South African government finally got smart on the issue of name changes. In Johannesburg, at least, all subsequent name changes will focus on South African fauna and flora, and the Mail and Guardian reports on a broad-based public consultation process to begin next year. Lets home the animosity and money-wasting is at an end.