• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Posts, Prose and Politics

Writers and thinkers and their impact.

May 18, 2018
 
 

As a writer, I hope to be read and understood. This week, I was thrilled to see that someone went from understanding to acting.

As IHE detailed Thursday, Marion Technical College in Ohio has taken the “buy one year, get one free” idea that I wrote about last year and turned it into an actual program. Students who complete at least 30 credits with a GPA of 2.5 or higher will be eligible for free tuition for the rest of the degree. The idea is to reward completion, and to turn what some see as a handout into an earned benefit.

MTC improved on the idea by adding a textbook stipend and mandatory advising to it.  I can’t wait to see the results for the first cohort this fall.

I’d love to see a variation on this program enacted at a state level. It would free up philanthropic giving to focus on the freshman year, dual enrollment, and/or textbook or food scholarships. It could also wind up costing a lot less than it looks at first blush, because it would create a disincentive for pre-graduation transfer; from a state’s perspective, a sophomore year at a community college is much cheaper than a sophomore year at a four-year public. And it sends a positive message about tenacity to students; get over the initial hump, and we’ll meet you halfway.  

Merits aside, though, I have to admit being tickled that someone took an idea and ran with it. I wondered aloud on Twitter whether this is how Sara Goldrick-Rab feels every day. She responded “A little,” with a smiley face. Exactly.

***

From a very different political angle, I was sad to hear about Tom Wolfe. I never met him, but I devoured much of his work in my teens.

His fiction didn’t really appeal to me, but his reportage could be breathtaking. I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” in high school, and remember being absolutely floored by the prose. I didn’t know that writing like that was even an option. He could, and did, veer between perfect precision and a sort of free verse as the situation warranted, daring the reader to follow.

He was ideal for a teenage reader, because he was so observant of surfaces. He captured the details of fashion or manner that teenagers obsess over. (Decades later, I still remember his mention of the bureaucrat’s Hush Puppies in “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”) I consider it an achievement when I write a piece that sounds like I talk. He routinely wrote like other people talk, including the pauses and slips. He used the structures of fiction to get at the larger truths that nonfiction rarely includes, because according to its usual rules, it can’t. In his early work, the humor relied on heavily on implication, rather than punchlines. His best stuff felt like master classes in expository prose.

In 1989 he did a piece in Harper’s that amounted to throwing down a gauntlet to American fiction writers. I remember where I was sitting when I read it, and how cloudy it was that day. In retrospect, it was the last great piece he wrote, but he made it count. His point was that the overly careful, minimalist stuff favored by creative writing programs relied on missing the amazing stories unfolding in the great big world, and that writers need to stop navel-gazing and get out there. They need to try to come to grips with the glorious complexity of American life. For a twenty-one-year-old on the cusp of a major life change, it was bracing. And brilliant, funny, and beautifully written.

Unfortunately, if inevitably, he tried to take his own advice and become a great American novelist. It was like Michael Jordan turning to baseball. Yes, it could be done, but why? Over time, Wolfe’s politics filled in for the observation he used to do so well.  But the early stuff? As he might have written, heeeeeeewack...

Forget the novels. Look at the essays. The closest parallel I could come up with for him was an American P.G. Wodehouse. Like Wodehouse, his prose could be simultaneously precise and wild, meeting perfectly the needs of its story.  Like Wodehouse, he could be laugh-out-loud funny. And, like Wodehouse, his political sense could be described as “crimped,” if not “obtuse.”  

Nobody’s perfect.

***

But some get closer than others.

Wendy Brown is a prominent political theorist at UC Berkeley. But many, many years ago, she was a rising star at Williams College. That was where I met her. I was a student in a “Gay and Lesbian Politics” January course she team taught with Tim Cook (not the one from Apple) in 1988. She was conspicuously brilliant, with a verbal style that somehow managed to balance accessibility with conceptual depth. And she was patient with students whose skills came nowhere near her own.

I remember a panel on campus on which she served as the discussant. A prominent older man from somewhere else had given a solid, if somewhat self-impressed, talk on gun control. She must have been in her thirties at the time, and was probably the only woman on the program. She improvised a response so thoughtful, deep, incisive, and funny that the man visibly lost his bearings. I remember smirking as I watched him first sit bolt upright, then start shuffling his papers and muttering “that was...excellent…” in a tone that combined fear and awe. She got that a lot.

I mention her because her graduation speech to the poli sci students at Berkeley this month went viral, and reading it, it all came rushing back. Thirty years later, it’s recognizably Wendy Brown. As with her teaching, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

It’s called “What Kind of World Do You Want to Live In?,” and it’s about the ethical obligation to reframe your frustrations while you’re having them. She addresses a hypothetical well-meaning person annoyed by a momentary inconvenience or setback that’s meant to help someone much worse off:

It’s not fair but fairness isn’t quite the issue. If you stay with the question of fairness, you will stay with a child’s view of what can be asked of you or what you can ask of yourself -- the view from powerlessness and where the only expectation is that you play by common rules, set by others. The question of what kind of world you want to live in is an adult question: it has bearing when your life is in your own hands, when you have a little or a lot of power or latitude, when you decide every day what to support or decry, nourish or fight. The question of what kind of world you want to live in asks you to become responsible to and for a world that you didn’t build, where the terms of entry are not fair and can be hard.

“It’s not fair but fairness isn’t quite the issue.”  

Political theory is hard, because it deals with complicated and often conflictual questions. It pulls back from context in order to make the context clearer, or to make it legible at all, or to put it in perspective and expose the important issue. At its best, it offers the possibility of empowerment simply by helping us come to grips with what really matters. A paragraph like the one above makes it look easy.

It isn’t.

Thank you, Prof. Brown, for making wisdom seem easy and accessible. It isn’t, and that’s not fair. But fairness isn’t quite the issue.

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