Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Help Me Teach James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

I'm teaching James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to my undergraduate students in my "intermediate" literary journalism class at Dartmouth College tomorrow. My problem: Too many of them loathe this masterpiece. Or, rather, they think they do. That's where I want your help.

A colleague of mine teaches Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in a course on American prose. Students encountering the book as an object of critical inquiry are exhilarated by it. But I've discovered that students here at Dartmouth, at least, encountering the book in a creative writing course, are quick to dismiss it. Every critique they level at it -- overwrought, grandiose, "unreadable," self-absorbed -- is dead on, of course. But there's more, too, so much more.

This is my second time teaching the book. The first time their contempt for it caught me by surprise. This time, I'm planning all kinds of strategies to help them open their minds to it.

This one is crass: I'd like to hear from other writers what Let Us Now Praise Famous Men means or meant to them. I want to highlight for my students the discrepancy between their certainty that this book is "bad" or somehow simply "wrong" and its ripple effect among writers.

So if the book matters to you, or mattered to you, will you comment below or send me a note about how or why at jeff dot sharlet at gmail dot com?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Fetishizing Dialogue

I'm interested in the way the rough shape of an essay can emerge from a set of tweets. Here's one from this morning prompted by a Harvard Crimson editorial criticizing anti-rape and anti-hate protests at Dartmouth College, where I teach.

Harvard Crimson scolds Dartmouth protesters for failing to pursue "dialogue." Student self-repression.

The assumption that "dialogue" solves all problems is profoundly paternalistic -- & naive.

The fetish for "dialogue" above all -- including legit anger & actual inquiry -- is a politics of presumption.

Fetish for "dialogue" assumes those you disagree w/ lack only your insight; assumes they want to "compromise." As if they have no agency.

I hear this from students all time; they forgive bigotries on assumption bigots lack approp "culture." Cant believe hate can be chosen.

David Creech, a religious studies scholar at Loyola University Chicago, wrote: What alternative to dialog do you propose?

Demand for alternative to "dialogue" assumes solutions always at hand. Sometimes whats needed is diagnosis, nt prescription.

Student fetish for "dialogue" a form of technocratic optimism based on free market myth of "exchange" as end in itself.

Creech wrote: Dialog for me implies also listening, the possibility that I might be changed by your insight and experience.

That's great when it's an option. But it assumes a desire for common ground. Which is a form of paternalism.

Creech: Desire for common ground as paternalism... Intriguing suggestion... I will have to chew on that for a bit.

The desire for common ground isn't paternalim; the assumption that others share it is.

Take the example of Uganda's "kill-the-gays" activists. Some assumed they needed dialogue. They thought that funny. 1/2

2/2 because they knew the arguments against homophobic genocide. Knew them & rejected them. Not looking for my "insight."

Defenders of "dialogue" as end in itself see only other option as brutality. They fail to imagine possibility of open-ended problem.

A perfect example of chosen bigotry: Heritage Foundation's Harvard-powered, race-based, anti-immigration "study."

Well-intentioned liberals always ask how we can "educate" haters. Elite haters don't need "education"; they need to be challenged.