Um, yay me, sort of

by Carl Dyke

It’s been a complicated little patch.

Two weeks ago I started giving a series of public talks for the local library system on “Nazi Book-Burning: Censorship, Ideology, and Dissent.” They were sparsely attended; apparently spending leisure time listening to professors pontificate about depressing topics is not plan A for most people. But I did not actually pontificate – I passed out brief selections from All Quiet on the Western Front and we tried to figure out what the Nazis didn’t like about it, using a Nazi student manifesto as a guide. The discussions were lively, especially the one attended mostly by middle school students. I was touched by their curiosity and eagerness to think. I also participated in Rachel’s talk for the same series, on the Nazis’ “degenerate art” exhibition. She took a similar approach, showing slides of both degenerate and approved art and working with the audience to puzzle out which was which, and why.

The Sunday before the Monday I started that, I hung out with my friends from the Music Department by participating in their Cape Fear New Music Festival. Along with new music the festival featured a performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” which was the subject of a mini-conference at which I discussed the historical reception of the piece using Glenn Gould’s 1964 speech on Schoenberg (pdf). Gould was an odd critter, which may account for his silly denial that Schoenberg should be understood in any context but the history of tonality. It may also account for his assertion that contrary to lore Schoenberg is not at all difficult; my impression is that Schoenberg’s pure cerebrality can be as easy as following instructions if taken at face value, but is baffling to anyone who expects music to have an element of feel. Anyway, I did a Bourdieuian number on how dwelling on Schoenberg’s difficulty might enhance the distinction of one’s taste and skill, creating distance between audience and practitioners that Gould decries but may be in the (second) nature of ‘high’ culture. Oblivious to this para-musical dynamic, Gould forecast that the use of atonality in popular scifi and horror movie scores would make Schoenberg part of the popular canon by the year 2000. Not so much, as it turns out.

Later in the week Rachel and I were on the local NPR station doing a segment on her obeast project for “The State of Things.” The occasion was the publication of her book, A Guide to the North American Obeast, for which both I and Dyke the Elder did essays. We were joined by Marilyn Wann, also in the book, who ably represented the fat activism perspective. Rachel and I talked about the construction of authoritative scientific discourse, the magical transformation of feelings into facts, and the traps laid by procrustean identity categories.

Sandwiched in all this was the next round of voting on MU’s general education reform. By a 61-59 vote, the ‘alternate core’ adding back required science, history, and religion classes passed. I had opposed this because it also removed the linked learning component, which still may be voted back in in the next round of voting. At this point I’m hopeful of that, but ready to roll with whatever we end up with.

This past week was focused on student and faculty research and creativity at MU. Two of my students presented work: Daniel Dessauer on conflict minerals in the Congo, a piece informed by the ‘mobile pedagogy’ Dyke the Elder and I have been working on; and Michael Duprey on network analysis of Cosa Nostra, in which he found that formal hierarchies of power are overlain by knowledge and organizational networks in which the critical ‘bridging’ nodes are quite different than a linear top-down leadership model would suggest. I also went to a talk by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, who blew me away with his masterful story-based rhetorical style and made me think yet again about the limitations of the argument-and-point style of academic analysis.

This past Wednesday was university awards day. I was pleased to see many deserving folks recognized for their good work, and was shocked when my name was called for the Cleveland award for excellence in teaching, which is our big lifetime-service award. It feels a little ironic given the struggle it’s been to embed what I think are pretty basic pedagogical orientations in the general education program, and I have mixed emotions about being noticed at the best of times – let alone when I haven’t dressed for the occasion. I also note that I was turned down for promotion the year I won my last teaching award. But I also know I’m just a little intellectually and emotionally wrung out right now, and I’m really grateful to be at a place that enables and encourages me to do all this stuff I love.

7 Comments to “Um, yay me, sort of”

  1. Heard that these awards often came at the weirdest time. Not surprise that you’d hedge the self-congratulation and bury the lede. Despite statements I’ve been making against teaching awards, I’m glad you got your lifetime recognized. A colleague, receiving a student award, was telling me that it only goes downhill from here.

  2. My stock comment to congratulations has been “This means I can stop trying now, right?” I also trot out the story of the experimental interdisciplinary college I interviewed at while I was on the market, in which the hippy founders were locked in struggle with the race/class/gender dogmatists they had hired. I got along great with the hippies, to my political detriment. Their avatar was a legendary fella who according to lore had been offered the teaching award every couple of years since the founding. He turned it down every time, saying teaching is work we’re all in together. I thought wow, that’s pure. I completely agree, but I’m not that pure. I’m also not in a place where that gesture would create any useful leverage.

  3. Yay you for sure, and yay Rachel too.

  4. Great! Does that mean you get a raise?

  5. Y’all are too kind. Jacob, Mr. Cleveland provided a generous bonus check. He also choked up when talking about his favorite old teacher. As much as the money comes in handy, I found the deep feeling more inspiring.

    In a larger sense, the award is part of our transition from a virtuous bootstrapping mom-and-pop shop to a more professional / corporate model. They’re trying to get the oversight and incentives aligned accordingly; in the usual desperate and well-meaning but counterproductive ways, shifting the ethos toward strategic self-interest while continuing to sing the songs of community and higher calling. So in the longer term this will go into the hopper for salary increase under the rubric of ‘merit pay’, an exciting concept in motivation for sociopaths I am doing my best to ignore lest it incent me away from the stuff that got me this award while not thinking at all about getting awards.

  6. I’m glad Carl. I’ve taught classes before, and it really is a difficult thing to do well, and so I very sincerely congratulate you.

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