Monday, April 10, 2017

Critical Studies and Cooperation

As a socialist radical in the early 70's I kept my fondness for football secret.  Football players were known to be not-very-smart, getting special treatment and easy courses, and possessed of primitive attitudes.  Ditto the girls who liked them. For the record, none of this was true at William and Mary, however true it may have been elsewhere. Still, I had national standards as a suburban hippie to uphold.

The quarterback from my high-school team went on to be the QB for Williams College, and we worked together briefly after graduation. I asked him why, with his clear hippie-freak leanings, he had continued to play ahem, football. "It was the only place on campus where everyone was working toward a common goal," he answered. "It was every-man-for-himself in classes and even in the dorms.  I really liked the experience of being a team that worked together."

Not until much later did I realise that this is one of the things that people like about being in theater (or choir or dance) as well.  The stereotype of actors as egotistical, rather full of themselves, is not a lie. I fit right in. Yet there is also that ensemble experience that is quite real.  People are working together.  Even through the traditional divide of the tech people versus the onstage people there is a sense of doing this together, and your success is my success as well. It's a nice experience to have.

When I read of the emphasis in Critical Studies on oppression and victimhood, and how that has infected even those academics who don't think of themselves as particularly in that camp, I wonder if we are undermining the ability of students to work together with people unlike themselves. When even those who roll their eyes a bit at Marxism and Critical Studies are still so focused on exploitation, commodification, and privilege, where does a student go to learn that cooperation is what has driven technological progress, trade routes, and the expansion of rights?

I don't want to paint this as binary. Oppressions and victimhoods have been part of teaching for all of my lifetime, and from what I read, for centuries before. Similarly, I may only be hearing the worst examples of what happens on campuses now. (Though there sure are a lot of them aren't there?  Fresh crop every week, it seems.) I am not claiming that students used to get so much encouragement to see the world in terms of cooperation and now get absolutely none. Yet I worry if any erosion, even gradually and at the margins, does not eventually unfit some of them to go and work in the world and get things done with others. I have seen this in the students who come through my hospital - not all, but too many. They come even to internships and rotations with the idea that one of their great responsibilities is to challenge "wrong" attitudes at the hospital.

Well, there are still sports teams, some of the performing arts, and ROTC, as well as whatever jobs students might get for themselves. Those may have been the only places those lessons were taught anyway.


Grim said...

Maybe both elements are present: kids gravitate to Critical Studies in part because it gives them a sense of belonging to a group with whom they have a common mission. The damage it does to their ability to interact with literally everybody else is still there, but it answers that need for a sense of belonging to something bigger than one's self, with important goals (like justice!).

dmoelling said...

A team or ensemble gives a strong feeling of being buoyed by others. In excess of course it can breed rigid tribalism, but not if the objective is winning the game or presenting a well received performance.

But if there needs to be a leader like a QB, Director or other role of command, the teams needs can wear down that person. You can begin to worry too much about the team and it's needs and forget they can support the leader as well.

I think someone steeped in the Critical Studies world can only function in a rigid tribal mode where the norms are defined absolutely (but not enduringly). Deviation is so forbidden that it's defeat becomes the prime objective

Donna B. said...

Singing is a pleasure.
Singing in harmony with others is a joy.
And I just feel so old when no one gets my reference to 5 part harmony.

One of the most magical moments I've experienced was during Christmas in a grocery store in the town where my youngest lives. She'd given me a list that included several fresh herbs. The store had a large selection and there were all in a corner. I'd finally worked my way through the crowd and found everything but rosemary. A nice man noticed I was searching and asked me what I was looking for. I told him rosemary and he broke into song when he handed me the package -- and then, the two of us sang a decent 2 person version of several verses of Simon & Garfunkel's song. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and left to a smattering of applause.

This could not have happened without both of us being taught not only music, but also the ability to cooperate and do our part in an ensemble. It also included tribalism -- we were about the same age and that song is part of our cultural memory.

But that's not the only tribe I feel membership in. In discussing code words/passwords with a young woman today, she asked me what a Cochise was. I silently replied to myself... a very good code word, apparently. To her, I said... there's a western movie marathon in your future and told her Cochise was a famous Apache chief. I'm waiting until tomorrow to ask her if she knows who Geronimo is.

(No, I'm not Apache. DNA says I am 0% Native American, but I grew up in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, never far from some tribal reservation. And watching Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, and Rawhide)

james said...

Odd how rarely people sing, isn't it? I know I can't compete with the pros that the guy across the bus is listening to, and there aren't that many places to sing alone: the shower and the car, I guess.

Academia is an odd beast. I've been associated with medium to large projects all my career--those are obviously team efforts (modulo internal politics and ego tripping). The mephitic pronouncements that make the news from UW and others come from other departments.
The students I meet acknowledge the proper pieties about diversity, but don't seem to waste much time with fruitless posturing themselves. We get some volunteers for outreach to grade schools, but nobody but the professional diversity people bothers with anything else. (Some of our web pages have Spanish versions, IIRC. German and Swedish are more common languages, but if you don't speak English you won't get anywhere.)

There are pockets of pretty advanced disciplines in academia. People who theoretically are discouraged by the supposedly inhospitable academic environment drop out long before they reach these pockets--which are, if my limited observations are any guide, hospitable and encouraging, though rigorous. I listened for a year and a half in meetings in which a professor was patiently trying to get a student to ask the proper questions of the data. I'd have thrown up my hands long before.

Rumor held that two profs (since retired/died) in the department had a penchant for taking advantage of attractive undergrads, but when I arrived this was yesterday's news. I _did_ see some professors walking on eggshells, and having to defend themselves against accusations of bias.

Texan99 said...

Nothing jazzes me like several people spontaneously breaking into a musical number with parts! I love those scenes in movies, but even more when it happens in real life. It's terribly rare, something to treasure, and as Donna says it requires some training and a shared popular repertoire. For me, a party really becomes a party when we can all sit around and make music together. In a couple of weeks, I'm going to treat myself to a two-day Sacred Harp singing: 9-3 on Saturday and again on Sunday, with four-part singing both days. Heaven.

Re cooperation in society: I've always been puzzled by the rap that the free market gets, as if it were all about ruthlessly exploiting one's neighbors. I see it as a shining example of fluid cooperation, buyers and sellers coming together only when both freely consent, making terms that needn't suit anyone else on earth but the two of them.

Donna B. said...

I'm downright jealous of your upcoming singing weekend. Intellectually, I know what you're talking about and I've seen (and can translate instrumentally) the tunebooks that my grandmother used. But, I can't quite do it vocally. Makes no sense, right?

The grocery store episode was so precious to me because nothing like that had happened for me since college... many, many years before. There, it was almost a regular occurrence since I majored in music and attended many Phi Mu Alpha parties.

I gave away my piano a few years ago to a group home for "for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities" of all ages. It was hard, but age, arthritis, and tremors made playing frustrating at best. And my grandchildren had keyboards. Seems that most houses do not have room for full size furniture-style pianos these days. Or room is not made for them.

And now we have karaoke. I'm not complaining too much, because it's been fun at family get-togethers. But, the spontaneity is missing and so is the repertoire because one has to buy it all over again. And you can't even buy what that stack of sheet music collected over two generations covered. And that's not counting the various hymnals.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Donna. Odd bit of information. My Romanian son married a Filipina, and reports that Americans from the Philippines are absolutely addicted to karaoke. He is one of the few Romanians who can't sing, but he launches right in and loves it. I have no idea what you should do with this information.

Donna B. said...

It's my brother-in-law and a nephew that are serious about karaoke. By serious, I mean they spend more than a little money on the machines and the tracks. No Asian ancestry in that family that I've found. My oldest daughter is the next most interested in karaoke -- to the point of threatening to make us sing for our dinner! Her husband is Filipino and does his best to be interested. His parents and siblings aren't very interested either, except in laughing at the rest of us. It is generally fun.

I'll be OK until someone wants me to dance for my dinner.