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Kiss Up

Jay Parini has just had a book published, The Art of Teaching (Oxford University Press), mainly for aspiring instructors at American universities.  It makes one main point:  find out what it takes to get tenure at whatever institution, and do it.

Parini seems a kindly professor.  More than twenty years earlier, in his first job, he failed to get tenure – job security for life – and, he says, it traumatized him.  He wants others to avoid this.  So he has lots of suggestions for today's aspirants for full-time, tenure-track university positions, that they may find the privileges and comfort he enjoys.

One innocence wafts through his book – the silliness of slim possibility that our many thousands of annually newly-minted Ph.Ds. have some chance for the few full-time university teaching positions that ever come open.  Parini, however, knows the odds against most ever having the remotest chance for such security as his.  He acknowledges (briefly) the more dour reality, so his book serves, as he admits, only the very, very few.

 The Art of Teaching came out just before hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  As that storm revealed the extent of our masses of damaged poor, by contrast it also showed the world what has long been the massively blind detachment of our highest-level governing and media elites.  Parini's book reveals the same systematic aloofness floating all our privileged across all our corporate academia.

 His biggest innocence, like that ever-anesthetizing our government and media elites in their bubbles, shows most in how he sees those "below" – in this case, students.  It's their enrollments that justify his system and its travel, holiday, and promotion entitlements, its immunities of departmental hierarchy, and its Babel of complicated, ever-accruing 401(K) and other pension plans.  The systematic in-and-out of students under girds this great corporate privileging system – but otherwise students don't matter.  Except for passing reference in his book to chance meetings with various graduates on his travels, and generalized reference to personal confessions he hears now and then in office hours, students exist only as a class of interchangeables, distantly vague, their truest energies amorphously elsewhere.  They make, at best, a remote demographic, as Katrina showed the New Orleans masses as most abrupt surprise to our privileged.

 We got the news, for days following Katrina, that we were all "shocked, shocked."

 Historically, at least, we can excuse ourselves.  We have the reasons of tradition for dulled imaginations and myopias shutting out our "huddled masses" or reducing them to cliché.  We allowed ourselves to see them long ago as bit players for our more glorious scripts back in the mists of time – we assigned them their roles as the "tired," the "poor," as Emma Lazarus put it in her poem "The New Colossus."  This way, "yearning to breathe free," the "wretched refuse . . . the homeless, tempest-tost" could all just keep on melodramatically huddling, legendarily ever-after in those words of hers inscribed in the base of our Statue of Liberty.  As cliché allows, too, the unwashed masses could return for further installments in similarly repetitive scripts, as they did a generation later in Jane Addams' chronicles of Hull House in Chicago, Dreiser's and others' tales, and the muckraking journalism of Jacob Riss in New York City's Lower East Side, How the Other Half Lives.  Good tropes, they could return, too, a generation after that as our arts again focused on the marginalized and poor – through the great photographers Roy Stryker from the Farm Security Administration set out across Depression America, and through the WPA murals of that era, Agee's prose and Evans' photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Hollywood's great haloes in Pare Lorentz documentaries and feature films from The Salt of the Earth and  Sullivan's Travels to John Ford's limnal recasting of Steinbeck.  A generation more and journalistic arts would bloom, flame anew as Michael Harrington's The Other America goaded our 1960s War on Poverty.

 Maybe our arts can capture and sometimes remedy our divide from those "below"; maybe art can "make something happen."  Perhaps, if we've the artists for it, Katrina's aftermath may awaken a nation whose media have long been hirelings spinning celebrity worship and authorities' lies.  Maybe we'll have the right movies and other arts that can open perspectives and locate us for more connections with the many others we seldom see at home, and with the many more abroad whom we damage through our lifestyles here, our policies there.  Parini, however, in his systematic shuttling of students off to the margins of The Art of Teaching, shows we're unlikely to change.  The ethos of higher education won't, either – its organs will continue as they long have:  graduating more and more with imaginations ever geared to seeing and noting no body except as strategic tools (or consumerism accomplices) for our otherwise mutually-isolated careerism channels.

 Parini, nevertheless, presents one great possibility for imagination.  He admits, and gives examples to show, how clothing, whenever we look upwards in academia, serves as much more than clothing.  It serves as props.  When we desire progress through their channels, and properly look to them, we may see how department chair people, dissertation directors, and others of academic rank may sport the officious formalities of tweeds, vests, ties, and ironed skirts and trousers.  They may flaunt the informalities of jeans, khakis, tee-shirts, sweats, and flannels.  Whatever they choose, its conveys multiple levels of messages.  Our superiors may not put into words their truest values, longings, myths, and taboos – but if we look and see, Parini says, we can see much more of how these, our betters, express roles and announce expectations.  Those who will negotiate the mazes and systems of rank had better have some skills in reading what pervasive non-verbal language may be saying.

 He does not, however, similarly read students.  He mentions in passing how surprised he is when, years later and cities away, he meets former students no longer in their grubby sweats, tees, and sneakers.  But that's it – Parini never stops to consider how the clothing they wear in class may also say something vital about them, and their poses.

 Not only does he feel no obligation to look at student clothing for what it may be announcing, but he feels no urge, either, to look at what their range in vehicles and transport styles may say, or their choices in food, their preferences in landscapes they inhabit, or the architecture and interior design of their buildings.  By not looking at what students may be saying in any way, he exemplifies the well-focused ethics of normal careerism.  (Its opposite ethics, those of poetry, invite us to rhyme, analogize, and connect widely – with "strategy" very other than careerism's cloning and fitting-of-oneself – poetry's only real law:  that we entertain, however, whatever, the nets of reverberation.)

 Our universities – all of them – train all in the ethics that corporate administrators, corporate textbook publisher accomplices, and corporate departmentalized faculty all model.  To fit oneself to them, one learns to look up and follow.  As one U.S. senator observed of the recent Bush appointee as UN ambassador, John Bolton (an extreme of the corporate type):  he was a "kiss-up, kick-down" kind of guy.  This coinage stirred chuckles in government and media – not merely for how it characterized Bolton, but, too, for how it sheds light on all of us who learn to train ourselves to any system's well-rutted tracks.  Thus Parini advises in The Art of Teaching to "kiss-up," even if never to "kick-down."  He never disparages, ridicules, or dumps on students, maybe because he's a nice guy, maybe because (follow the money) no academic can get tenure in any of its corporate departments if any ever abuses any of the consumers.  For this reason – and this alone – students matter:  not as human beings amid ongoing, conflicting, evolving stories, but as flow chart units who write evaluations.  Students matter because they signal customer satisfaction.  They count for how their instructors – as syllabus-contracted modular unit delivery providers – implement their larger and more important corporate processes and procedures.  Student evaluations never measure anything else – nobody expects anybody in "higher education" to take any ongoing narratives seriously, nor to take seriously anyone "below," outside of, or not easily fitting tracked and channeled syllabi purposes.  Instructors often needn't even know student names, let alone connect to the human stories (issues, values, contradictions) percolating in otherwise evidently expressive combinations of clothing, food, transport, buildings, and landscape.

 At the same time Parini publishes his book, and Katrina hits New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, over in the Persian Gulf American diplomacy and soldiering get bogged down, and not a few observers miss the analogies to Vietnam a generation before.  Among these links to parallel incompetence, arrogance, and spiraling money and human costs, as our best military observers note, is how in both places our otherwise superior troops remain primarily based in withdrawn fortifications.  They may foray out on missions, but they always return to base – unlike the elusive insurgents who remain mixed in with the civilian population, regardless of temporary expulsions superior force may occasion.  We can't win, these critiques say, unless we know the local language – unless we can recognize and live among local customs, as our "enemies" do.

 We can't win – anywhere – so long as a "kiss up" mentality reigns – as such an ethos does throughout in our nice, genteel, sophisticated corporate world where all systematically learn to ignore "others" laterally around, or "below."

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