Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Teaching at the End of the World

Below is the short paper I gave at the BABEL Working Group conference at UC Santa Barbara earlier this month. I presented alongside four of my wonderful colleagues from Loyola, and we were all talking in various ways, coming from different angles, about what it might mean to be "teaching at the end of the world." And relatedly, here's an ad that Loyola has running on the St. Charles streetcar line now—it's me, teaching one of my Literature & Environment seminars:

Whenever the weather is even minimally conducive, I take my classes outside and we sit in a circle to discuss the day's reading. I keep lobbying our university administration for clever seating emplacements around our campus that could be utilized on such occasions, but to no avail (at least not yet). So we bivouac on a piece of sun baked sod, half-shaded by a live oak for those who overheat easily, and we pull out our copies of Robinson Crusoe or Frankenstein, Tender Buttons or White Noise, and a student invariably will ask, Why is the ground always wet? Well, because we're under water, basically. That’s why when an oil tanker churns by, headed upriver, you find yourself looking up to see it: the Mississippi River is actually above us. It’s also in part why the fire ants are vigorously, ceaselessly building up their dirt mounds: to achieve a modicum of dry land on this eroding edge of the continent. But no, you won't find much under 'ecology' if you search for the fire ant on your smart phone. It hits too close to home. Yes, the delta is vanishing at a rate of a football field each hour. No, I don't know how long that gives us here. Let's open to page 36, and think about how the novel is founded on the non-simple space of the beach...

The New Orleans airport is the second lowest airport in the world, at about four feet above sea level. (Only Amsterdam’s Schipol airport is lower, at eleven feet below sea level.) New Orleans is about to embark on the construction of a brand new, state of the art, world-class airport terminal: an aerotropolis. How am I supposed to incorporate this building project, this mirage of progress, into my teaching and research? Will this space stand simply as a shimmering and seamless transition zone for new students arriving each fall semester? Will the new airport be unquestionable, an utterly straightforward social text? Will our baggage arrive bathed in a sublime aura, at last? Will the air be safe from contaminants, diseases, and other pollutants? Or will the new control tower stand like Ozymandias, an object lesson for a poetics of the brazen?

Sometimes it seems like the most important thing I can do these days in my classes is to preserve a space for slow reading: 75 minutes, two times a week, where we can sit or crouch—be beached—on sinking ground, and read words on pages, to think about these words together, how narrative congeals (or not). If only then to find ourselves in the world, the actual world with all its consequences. To rephrase a line from the preface of Nietzsche's Daybreak, at present it is not only my habit, but even my taste—a perverted taste, maybe—to teach nothing but what will drive to despair every one who is “in a hurry.” Slowness—it seems to me that this is one of the truly inestimable skills, maybe even a form of art, that we can model to our students, and even teach them how to do it: how to decelerate before meaning. Yet how do I balance this desire with or measure it against the simultaneous urgency of ecological awareness?

I worry that I am regressing. A major highpoint of my five and a half years so far teaching at Loyola University New Orleans happened last November, when I joined my biology colleague David White, who takes about thirty students out with him each fall on an evening canoe trip in the bayous surrounding New Orleans. The students get a crash course in “landscape ecology,” or the multiple scales and mosaics of relationships and processes taking place across given ecosystems. The trip included several floating stops to discuss the invasive and prolific Triadica sebifera (or Chinese tallow, or popcorn tree), the water hyacinths spinning by, the channels dredged by humans a century ago—in short, the objects and animacies of this fragile if fecund riparian system. By the end of this evening on the water, the students seemed enchanted—if also perhaps a little exhausted. I had watched them slow down, pay attention, listen. David took extra care to draw attention to the quietude, the sounds of the bayou away from the highway we'd arrived on.

But I digress. I was talking about regression. Ever since that night on the bayou, or maybe it started before, I’ve found myself wanting to get back to teaching nature writing, that na├»ve genre, that earnest kind of literature that strives contradictorily for “contact, contact!” in Thoreau’s words. What is happening to me? I’ve read my eco-criticism carefully, I know my theory, I wrestle with the Derridean aporia of “nature as self-proximity”—why do I want to linger with my students in literary representations of nature, simulacral ecologies as they are? What are these paradoxical pleasures, being in nature and learning to see it (as if ‘it’ even exists!) in literature?

As we paddled back to the vans, through pitch black night, an eerie spotlight darted erratically up ahead, piercing the skein of cypress trees and Spanish moss. A low rumble and sputter echoed across the water. It was hard to make out what it was that was approaching us, but gradually it appeared: Cajuns, a bunch of them, a gaggle of friends or maybe a family, piled into an unbelievably clamorous boat—if you could call it that—a mishmash craft weighed down with…things, chugging through the black night aiming a military grade spotlight, looking for alligators (or so David thought). It was a strange moment, us gliding by in our canoes and them in camouflage jackets rumbling past, blasting us with pivot-mounted incandescence. No words were exchanged, not out of tension or spite but merely due to the noise of their gurgling motor.

Maybe I believe, channeling Nietzsche once more, that reading nature writing itself, perhaps, will not “get things done” so hurriedly: but it will teach how to read well: that is, slowly, profoundly, attentively, prudently, with inner thoughts, with mental doors ajar, with delicate fingers and eyes… This is my regression, and I’m afraid it’s not going away anytime soon.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Real World College

Below is a brief talk I recently gave to the Visiting Committee to the College of Humanities & Natural Sciences at Loyola.

As an undergraduate I went to a rather crazy, small liberal arts college in the Midwest—I won’t name names.

I spent the first two years there wondering what I was doing, where I was going, how I was supposed to figure out my major…

Then about halfway through, the liberal arts mission of the college kicked in. I found that I had amassed many English and Philosophy courses, without really even trying. The question of my major was magically settled. My physics, biology, and Latin classes had captivated me just as much—and I continued taking courses in those disciplines, as well.

I ended up loving my education for all its eccentricities. It gave me an intellectual foundation for which I am more grateful every year.

I earned my PhD from a very different kind of school: the University of California, Davis, where I specialized in American Literature and in critical theory. At UC Davis, you also earn an obligatory degree in wine tasting, because it has one of the world’s foremost oenology & vitaculture programs, and the graduate students and local wineries always need volunteers to taste their new vintages. This skill came in handy once I was on the job market, and I still think my description of a certain Rhone wine at Herbsaint could have played a key role in landing me this job.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to be offered a position in the English department in 2009, and to be back on a small campus. And I have thrived here: I love my students, and I have had generous support from my Dean and my home department over the past five years to carry out my research, which focuses on a wide range of cultural studies topics. In 2011 my book on airports in American literature was published, and just this past month my academic study of the actor Brad Pitt came out. (Don’t ask.)

I currently edit a series of essays and pithy books published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury, called Object Lessons: each author takes on a specific object, and writes about it for a general audience. Topics in this series include blankets, hotels, dust, golf balls, phone booths, trees, bread…I could go on and on, for the series is of infinite scope.

In all my writing projects, I have involved students in the publication process—giving them hands-on, real world experience that they can take with them once they leave Loyola. I recently heard from one graduate who took an editorial position with North Atlantic Books in San Francisco; another student emailed me just last week to say she’d been offered a highly selective internship position with Columbia University Press. I’ve also seen my former students go on to terrific graduate programs at institutions all over the country, in fields ranging from film production and creative writing to liberal arts and media studies.

At Loyola, in the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I’ve been able to integrate my teaching and scholarship at very turn: whether this means offering an interdisciplinary seminar on airports for first year Honors students, or creating a senior-level seminar on the late (and very challenging) author David Foster Wallace—a course which several students demanded, and who was I to say no?

When I was in college, one of my philosophy professors, Dr. Stephens, had this intense teaching habit: if a student would answer a question with a vague or  academic answer, Dr. Stephens would slam his hand down on the table and practically scream, "Make it real!

Likewise, but perhaps a bit more gently, I always try to impress upon my students that the distinction people make between college and the so-called ‘real world' is a false one. It’s just that it is up to us to actually treat college as a real world, with real implications. Whether I’m discussing postmodern literature with students, or working to help them write vivid prose ready for publication, I’m constantly reminding them that our ideas matter, and that they shape and are shaped by the world around, a world that urgently needs us to be aware and involved.

In the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences, I think we share this feeling, this real-world obligation toward our teaching and scholarship. We’re not detached, and the students recognize this, and they thrive when they realize that we are earnestly inviting them into real world adventures that require intellect and imagination. I’m glad to be a faculty member at Loyola, and excited to see what the future holds for our college.