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What (Exactly) Is Neoliberalism?

Dissent magazine is currently hosting a forum on the meaning of neoliberalism—an oft-abused term in leftist circles. Historian Daniel Rodgers kicks off the discussion by arguing that the term is an unproductive conflation of disparate forces.  As variously used, it may represent: i) a description of the global economic situation; ii) a strain of economic theory; iii) the machinations of so-called disaster capitalists; or iv) an all-embracing cultural logic.  Rodgers opposes this conceptual indeterminacy because, he claims, it makes it more difficult to identify potential avenues of resistance.  Of course, what “neoliberalism” means will depend on the context in which it is deployed.  I want to suggest, though, that for those in the humanities (like myself) the term is useful precisely because it is all-encompassing.  In short, it’s a concept capable of tying together the global and the local, the economic (definitions i, ii & iii) and the cultural (definition iv).  As such, it’s useful for reminding us of our embeddedness.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to present some empirical observations.  All of the following points, I’d argue, represent verifiable facts about the nature of life in Western society.  What’s the connection?

  1. In 1950 there were 2,500 private, in-ground swimming pools in the United States.  In 2009 there were 5.2 million (see City Observatory).
  2. When I first enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1998, my tuition was about $1200 a year.  As of 2016, tuition at KU was about $11,000.
  3. Throughout the 20th century, marijuana, gambling and pornography were all, to varying degrees, prohibited by law in the United States.  As of 2018, all these “vices” are tolerated, if not outright legal.
  4. Throughout the 20th century, by and large, claims that a person had the right or privilege to select their own gender were met with hostility or derision.  As of 2018, a wide segment of the US population believes that people do—or at least should—have such a right.
  5. Throughout the 20th century, it was possible for a criminal defendant to escape incarceration on the grounds that he or she was not guilty “by reason of insanity.”  As of 2018, this defense is rarely successfully.  If a defendant is held to be insane, the result is typically long-term commitment indistinguishable from incarceration.

At first glance these observations might seem like a jumble, devoid of any pattern that can be charted.  To make sense of them, we need a meta-category, a cultural logic.  This is what neoliberalism provides. It’s a thread we can use to unite changes in physical environs (1), resources allocation (2), law and policy (3 & 5), and values and mores (4).

So what’s the connection?  Following Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault, I understand neoliberalism as the interjection of the market into every facet of the lifeworld.  Under neoliberalism, people are conceived of as rational economic actors.  They are expected to weigh cost and benefits, to become profit-maximizing “entrepreneurs of the self.”  To facilitate profit maximization, control is decentralized.  Normativity is less strictly enforced as to allow each private entrepreneur to seek profit opportunities invisible to the “powers that be.”  In such a world, if you want to swim, you need to build the pool.  If you want a college education, you need to pay (a lot) for it.  If you have the funds, though, there are more socially valid consumption choices than ever before (weed, porn).  Identity categories also proliferate.  If you feel like a woman, or a transwoman, or a Hijra, you can become one, because, of course, the customer is always right.  Just don’t step out of line.  As a (supposed) profit-maximizer, you will be held responsible for your actions, whether structurally disadvantaged (E.G. insane) or not.

Rodgers would likely criticize my understanding of “neoliberalism” as lacking precision.  He identifies neoliberalism-as-cultural-logic as “the saddest and most totalizing scenario… in which the horizons of all other meanings and purposes shrink and submit to those of market capitalism.”  He sees this way of thinking as leading to despair.  I simply disagree.  Yes, market logic and the demands of global finance dominate our lifeworld.  No, this doesn’t mean human flourishing is foreclosed.

Rodgers, like many on the left, seems to view a binary sort of resistance to the demands of capital as the highest ethical impulse.  For him, the idea that the market structures our ever move is depressing because we can only do good at a remove from market forces.  My claim, I suppose, is that there is no remove.  We are all (human) capital.  And that’s OK.  An objective assessment of the past fifty years indicates both obstacles to human flourishing (the dismantling of the welfare state in the US and UK, no more public pools) and massive progress (a billion Chinese peasants lifted out of poverty, gay rights).  Neoliberalism as an all-encompassing cultural logic allows us to capture this duality.  In doing so, it helps us to better understand ourselves.  It asks us to consider whether, from a perch as an emeritus professor at Princeton, for example, we can really be said to oppose market logic.  Or whether, all along, we’ve just been working within the system to mitigate its worse tendencies.

So, while noting Rodgers concerns, I will keep using “neoliberalism” in an expansive sense.  Yes, mine is an admittedly reductive narrative, and of course you could identify cultural currents which contradict the story I tell.  I think, though, as a writer and teacher (and human) it’s useful to have a broad cultural narrative within which to frame one’s existence.  It doesn’t directly answer any questions, but it allows you to better go about answering questions in your particular domain.  And if broad enough, in a way, it keeps you honest.  It reminds you that however much you want to be, you are almost certainly not outside the system.

(Digital) Media Literacy: A Cognitive Approach

This semester I’m teaching a course on digital media literacy and as such, have been reading up on some of the foundational texts in the field.  One book I’ve found particularly informative is W. James Potter’s Theory of Media Literacy, A Cognitive Approach.  Here, Potter, author of a noted media literacy textbook, lays out the theoretical foundation for his views.  Though he deals primarily with “old media” (TV, radio, etc.), I think his ideas are quite relevant to digital culture.

Potter’s approach is shaped by cognitive psychology.  He starts from the assumption (reasonable in my opinion) that humans, by nature, seek to conserve mental energy.  This means that most of our interactions with media are automatic, unconscious and habituated.  In info-rich environments, he writes, “our minds stay on automatic pilot,” unconsciously screening out most stimuli (10).  Integrally, though, Potter believes that unconscious exposure can still be influential.  Even when we’re not actively paying attention, messages still get through.  “Over time,” he writes, “images, sounds, and ideas build up patterns in our subconscious and profoundly shape the way we think” (10).

Basically, Potter sees the human mind as a porous entity.  The discursive environment in which we move shapes us whether we like it or not.  To me, this idea rings true.  It explains, for example, the millions of dollars paid to get brand names on sports stadiums.  Per Potter, it’s not about conscious messaging.  PNC, for example, doesn’t want people actively thinking about financial services when they go to PNC park.  Instead, they want mindless, habituated exposure to their trademark.  They want to enter the world of consumers via the side door, so to speak, as not to deal with the trouble of actually proving their services are of value (which they would have to do if their claims were to be consciously considered).

So Potter’s cognitive approach explains the behavior of advertisers.  How might it relate to new media?  Potter writes that media businesses “do not want our attention as much as they want our exposure” (14).  Again, active attention would open media messages up to unwanted scrutiny.  Instead, media-producing businesses want consumers to engage with content mindlessly and habitually.  Does the same dynamic apply in regard to media in which content is user-created?  This is a difficult question.  Certainly, social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter want to get consumers in a pattern of habitual use (and thus exposure to ads).  Likewise, they don’t want consumers thinking too much about those ads, the interface itself or the possible (side)effects of their product.  At the same time, it seems that social media requires a slightly more active consumer.  If a user simply scrolls through her feed and doesn’t create content or engage with other users the platform is deprived of data, hence profit.

Despite the above, it seem that on a cognitive-level, consumer behavior in an old media vs. new media environment would be much the same.  We browse our feeds in default mode, automatically filtering out most content.  That excess content is still there, though, shaping how we understand the world.

Potter is mainly concerned with consumers mindlessly succumbing to the wishes of advertisers and media outlets.  He argues that we are “being trained to tune down our powers of concentration” as to accept secondhand meanings rather than create our own (14).  In regard to new media, we can assume a similar process, but perhaps a more diverse array of influencers.  Certainly Facebook and its advertisers are trying to give you meanings, but so are content generators (your uncle and Russian bots, for example).  How do we make sense of this jumble?  Returning to the idea of mental conservation, we can assume that those meanings that require the least amount of energy to process might be the ones that get through.  This idea would help explain the simplification of discourse common in online environments.  If Potter is right, though, others disparate meanings would still be impacting us (to the extent that they exist in our discursive space).

It’s pure speculation on my part, but perhaps in a world of decentralized content creation, we should think in terms of form rather than meaning.  In other words, rather than focusing on how the circulation of specific meanings may be impacting our lifeworld (Hillary good vs. Hillary bad), it may be more productive to consider the forms those meanings take.  If Potter is right, advertisers, your uncle and the bots will be using similar strategies to get you to buy their messages (E.G., radically simplified discourse).  “Media literacy” would thus become the process of recognizing these strategies and the ways in which– apart from the content pushed– they might shape how we think and act.  It seems to me that Potter’s cognitive approach can help us perform this sort of analysis.

Protecting Our Space

According to a new survey, 20% of American college students now say it is acceptable to use physical force to stop a speaker from making “hurtful or offensive comments.”  Catherine Rampell, in the Washington Post, reads this as a growing rejection of the principle of free speech.  I think she’s right.  It does seem that Americans are increasingly willing to accept censorship and silencing.  Or at the very least, they are more willing to take active measures to protect their discursive space.  Why?

The first and most obvious answer, I believe, is the dominance of consumer logic.  The world of late capitalism is ruled by “choice.”  Through our consumption habits, we are expected to construct our own reality.  I can customize my home or outfit—sculpt it to the exact image I want to project—so why not my information stream?  Of course, as Cass Sunstein has argued, exposure to opposing views is a necessary social good.  Consumer logic undercuts such thinking, though.  It sidelines the expert (Sunstein), and long-term (democracy) in favor of immediate, emotional satisfaction.  When we think as consumers, therefore, it is only logical to censor and silence.

So people shut down speech because they want to, and believe as consumers, they should get what they want.  Where does this desire to silence originate?  Of course, the alien is always disconcerting.  Still, this new survey data indicates that people are increasingly troubled by opposing views.  Or perhaps we are simply more attuned to them.  Perhaps because of the homogenization of our discursive space the alien sticks out, demands our attention (and challenge), more than it once did.  When I spend most of my time in a filter bubble, the sliver of the outside world that sneaks through is bound to be upsetting.

I do wonder though if there are other factors at play. This is very speculative, but I wonder if the structures of belief which we use to define self and world are shakier than they once were.  In our multicultural, multivocal world even the most closeted thinker must know—at least on some level—that other views are always out there.  Perhaps in earlier, less connected times these views were more distance, and hence less threatening.  And/or perhaps our relation to knowledge has changed.  Perhaps we can say that with modernity and postmodernity some sort of ground has disappeared, and this makes us fundamentally insecure.

We can imagine, for example, a true believer, someone so confident in his views that opposing beliefs are seen only as objects of amusement. Such would be the position of a medieval Christian laughing at a Hindu, perhaps.  The Hindu’s gods are so distance, and the Christian’s understanding of how the world “is” so solid, that the former’s religious claims cause no offense.  Now compare this to students trying to shut down a conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro at Berkeley say.  They find it intensely offensive that Shapiro claims there are only two genders. Shapiro’s views fundamentally hurt these students.  Why?  Why can’t they just laugh at him?  Certainly, they “know” that gender is a spectrum, a social construct.  They know it as certain as the medieval Christian knows the true nature of God….

My point is that it seems that what it means to know has changed.  On some (subconscious) level we have internalized the idea that knowledge is relative, rhetorical and shared.  Leftwing activists need Ben Shapiro to acknowledge gender is a spectrum because, simply put, we can’t be sure of anything anymore.  There’s an abiding sense of unreality, a feeling that everything is up for negotiation.  The negotiation is public, but the outside works its way in, shaping how the individual thinks.  This would explain why we see students chasing conservative speakers off campus.  And why we see Trumpian attacks on the “lame steam media.”  In both cases the principle is the same: I want (or need) to believe the world is X.  When you say it is Y, it makes my life harder.  I must therefore stop you from saying Y.

In short, in a world of excess—of connection and unbridled choice—we recognize that everything is shared, everything is unstable.  We must take an active role in constructing our reality.  And this means being constantly on guard against threats to that reality.

Grad Unionization or No, Pitt Needs More Financial Transparency

Graduate student unionization.  Of late, it seems that those of us engaged in funded graduate study are caught between [insert Game of Thrones reference].  As a student at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, in the past couple weeks I’ve received an email from Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia Beeson laying out the university’s official position.  I’ve also been following the Intellectual Poverty blog of one Andrea Hanna, a graduate student in communications at Pitt, and supporter of unionization.  Let’s parse the claims within, and see what’s going on.

Beeson basically claims that education (including networking, the development of practical skills, etc.), rather than financial compensation, is the primary point of graduate study.  As such, she doesn’t want to foreground financial concerns.  If there are any issues with the current funding system, she argues, they should be addressed piecemeal—on a departmental basis—rather than through the broader framework of unionization / collective bargaining.

Hanna, on the other hand, claims that the university is starving her to death!  Having come to Pitt from Northern Ireland, she finds it very difficult to get by on her graduate stipend.  Among other measures, she’s had to resort to handouts from a local foodbank.  Her blog is dedicated to tracking this “intellectual poverty” and her attempts to overcome.

Now, I’m not going to make a claim for or against unionization.  I would like to say, though, that my experience as a grad student at Pitt (five years as a PhD candidate in the English department), bears little resemblance to Hanna’s.  Still, I respect what she’s doing.  I think transparency is important: we need to get our (financial) experiences out in the open so we can have an honest debate about what problems exist and how they can be solved.  In short, we shouldn’t cede to the administration’s desire to obscure financial concerns.  As such, let me relate my experience.

My official job title at Pitt is “teaching fellow.”  According to Pitt’s Graduate Studies website, this means I make $9,590 per term, or $19,180 per year (plus health insurance).  In exchange, I teach one section of freshman composition (or a similar course) per semester.  My class meets for 3 hours a week.  As I’ve taught this class before, my out-of-class preparation time is limited—probably about 5 hours a week (this includes meeting with students, reading/responding to student emails, grading blog posts, etc.).  Also, five times a semester I read a batch of student essays: this is pretty time-intensive, taking about 8 hours per batch.

So, over the course of a fifteen-week semester, I work about 160 hours (45 in-class, 75 preparation, 40 grading).  For this I get paid $9,590, or about $60 per hour.  In the English department, funding along these lines is guaranteed for at least five years.

Unlike Hanna, I find I am able to live quite comfortable on my Pitt salary.  I have a roommate, and thus pay only about $700 per month for rent and utilities (gas, electricity, cable/wi-fi).  I buy groceries at Trader Joe’s, where I spend about $250 a month.  For recreation I do regular millennial stuff: drink craft beer, go out to eat, see bands.  I own a 2003 Toyota Corolla (so no car payment), and though I have student loans, am fortunate that they are in deferment (hence no loan payments).  So in short, despite making a relatively low wage, as a single, rather frugal person, I find that almost every month I have money left over.

I don’t want to imply that my experience is typical.  In fact, after reading Hanna’s blog, I recognize that it’s not.  As such, whether grad students unionize or not, I feel that the university needs to do a better job of making salary / work information publicly available for comparison.  How much, for example, does Hanna (or a biology PhD) make per hour of work?  How much do they actual bring home, and were they appropriately informed of this situation before taking a position at Pitt?  These questions obviously inform whether unionization is needed.  Likewise, if the university refuses to provide such information, one must conclude that unionization is indeed needed.

Of course, financial transparency should also extend to faculty members.  How much do faculty and staff in the English or communications department make, for example?  How does this compare to those in the Business school?  At many colleges this information is publicly available.  Not at Pitt.  Because of her rank as one of the highest paid university employees, we know that Provost Beeson earned $492,133 in 2016.  Hanna claims to make $17,500 per year.  This indicates that Beeson is approximately 28 times more valuable to the university than Hanna.  Is this true?  I don’t know.  I do feel, though, that we should get all the salary data out in the open, so we can properly debate such claims.

So, in short, from what I’ve seen, any claim that graduate students at Pitt, as a whole, are “impoverished” is a bit ridiculous.  But some student employees obviously have grievances.  I call on the university to compile and make available detailed salary and work information, so that the members of the Pitt community can decide if these complaints are valid.

ESL Manifesto

As someone who has taught writing to both native English speakers and second-language learners, I’ve noticed something of a “two cultures” situation between these ventures.  The former is dominated by English departments, generally, while the latter is dominated by linguistics.  These two groups have different ideas about how writing should be taught.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about where my own views fit in.  To help figure this out, I’ve drafted a short statement of how I teach writing, a “this I believe” statement, you could say.  Here it is:

  • A writer improves by writing.  The job of the writing teacher is to create an environment in which the writer has to write.
  • To write is to create meanings (interpretations of our shared world) and make those meanings understood.  As such, the student writer must receive constant feedback as to how her meanings are received.
  • Increased linguistic sophistication is achieved when a writer is forced to create meanings beyond the forms on which she normally relies.  The learning environment should be structured to encourage such movement.
  • Conscious knowledge of the writing act (grammatical rules, names for textual features or stages of the writing process) is useful to a limited extent.  The introduction of such knowledge should always be subordinate to active meaning-making.

Reviewing my claims, a number of things stick out.  First, as is perhaps apparent, I make no distinction, on a theoretical level, between teaching native and non-native speakers.  In all cases, I’d argue, teaching writing is a matter of triggering the innate human tendency towards meaning-making.  We learn a second language, I’d say, the same way we learn a first language: by doing it.

Second, my sidelining of the conscious elements of the learning process might surprise some.  Now, I admit that some knowledge of basic textual forms is beneficial.  For example, the idea that it often improves uptake to say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said (introduction-body-conclusion) is something everyone should know.  In my experience, though, by the time they get to me (a university writing instructor), most students already know such rules, at least in the abstract.  If there’s a problem, it’s that they can’t actualize this knowledge.  This means that presenting ideas about how writing is or should be is usually not an efficient use of class time.  Instead, the students should be the ones producing the content.  They should be doing the writing and thinking, not the teacher.

Third, the ecological nature of writing should be respected.  Smaller units of discourse are inevitably shaped by the larger units of which they are a part: a word gets its meaning from a sentence, a sentence from a paragraph, etc.  This means that you should be very careful about decontextualizing language units.  Consider the sentence.  If you want better (richer, more technically correct) sentences, you can’t focus solely on individual sentences.  Instead, each sentence must be engaged within a larger discursive structure.  This is what I’m trying to get at when I speak of students creating “meanings.”  Meaning, as used here, is a complete idea, projected into the world for a purpose.  This purpose, in turn, shapes each sentence, paragraph, etc.  By focusing on meanings (instead of decontextualized units) students learn to engage in the dialectic between part and whole which is inherent in the writing act.  This helps them become better writers.

Finally, the value of difficulty should be acknowledged.  Students must write, but to grow, they must do more than just write: they need to move beyond the forms they typically rely on.  This implicates content.  Students need to be forced to write about things they haven’t written about before.  And these topics should be complex (relevant to the student’s current level).  Even if students are writing every day, I’d argue, their growth will be limited if the topics they are writing about are too simplistic or too familiar.  In such cases, they’re just displaying their abilities, rather than expanding those abilities.

That’s it.  The above ideas are largely draw from (American, English-department based) composition theory.  I honestly don’t know how they would be received in ESL circles.  But I welcome any discussion the above might spark.

On Attunement

Attunement.  A word I often deploy (e.g., my recent claim that writing instruction involves, at heart, the cultivation of an “ethics of attunement”).  Lately though, I’ve come to think that I’ve been using this term somewhat thoughtlessly.  In the following I’d like to map out attunement’s various meanings, and in the process, argue for a redefinition that foregrounds attunement as a conscious act.

At the most basic level, attunement implicates sound.  A group of individuals is “in tune” when the members of that group vibrate at the same resonance or pitch.  Attunement is the act of moving into alignment with the group’s shared frequency.  There’s an interesting mix of conscious and unconscious, mental and material elements at play in such a act (which perhaps explains attunement’s recent popularity as a means to describe writing and rhetoric).

Attunement, it seems to me, can be driven by an articulable desire—intent to attune, we might say—or it can be totally outside the realm of conscious control.  It can be a rational, step-by-step process of experimentation and adjustment (as when a singer flexes his throat muscles, trying to match a note on a scale) or it can be something that the body seems to do completely on its own (as when we find ourselves becoming nervous around a nervous person).  There’s always some bodily or material aspect at play.  Attunement can never take place completely in the mind or “on paper.”  We’d never say that one formal equation, for example, is in tune with another.  Relatedly, attunement implicates the emotional or affective.  Within psychology, I am told, attunement indicates how in touch one is with the moods or emotional states of another.  To be attuned is to register, and respond, to those states.

So attunement casts a wide net, indicating the ability, either conscious or unconscious, of one entity to adapt (by physically adapting) to another.  With its hint of emotional receptivity, and related ability to capture so much beyond the logical, the term has become commonplace in rhetoric and composition.  Like “care” or “hospitality,” attunement is almost always used in a positive sense.  If we dig a bit deeper though, we realize that attunement is in fact ambiguous, both morally and otherwise.  To be able to intuite that your friend is upset, and display sympathy, is attunement, sure.  But Hitler, for example, also showed a great degree of attunement in his ability to register the energy of German crowds and replicate that energy in his own bodily movements.  So attunement can be for good or ill.

As noted, I have recently written of composition’s ethics of attunement.  In that discussion I used attunement to capture composition’s commitment to teaching students how to know what needs to be done in a given rhetorical situation.  This process is never totally cerebral: we have to be able to “read” the emotional tenor of an audience, for example.  It’s never completely outwardly focused either: we have to constantly monitor both the situation and ourselves, wary of the ways in which our biases and predispositions shape what we see and feel.  My original argument was that via this dual focus we can help bring our thinking and action in line with what is demanded by a situation.  This ability to attune is ultimately what makes a good writer.

Integrally, attunement, as described above, always involves an act of judgement.  I obscured this fact in previous discussions and would like to make it clear now.  As commonly used, attunement—because it is so extra-rational—seems to imply that one has no choice in the matter.  If the crowd wants a speaker to stroke their anger, this thinking goes, the attuned rhetor is one who provides it.  To go against the crowd, to keep breathing regular and heartbeat steady when all around you breaths and beats are racing, represents a lack of attunement, yes?  As the term is conventionally used, this seems to be the case.

We don’t want to teach student-writers to be like Hitler (obviously).  So how can we understand attunement in a more sophisticated manner?  We need a force which checks attunement.  What force though?  To what is the process of adaptation responsible?  The answer, I’d like to suggest, is the ideal.  The ideal is the good, that towards which we strive and by which we measure our practice.  It is a verbalizable statement (not a feeling or “vibe”) and necessarily abstract.  It is actualized via stories which illustrate the application of the ideal in specific contexts.  For example, one might say that she is driven by a commitment to “Justice.”  She might know stories– specific, context-rich examples– of when justice prevailed and when it did not.  Given a situation, it is her responsibility to measure that situation, and compare it to her set of stories.  Though this process, she can know how to think and how to act.  Should she allow herself to become attuned to the fury of the crowd—to channel and embody that passion—or should she remained detached?

This analysis adds a third element to what I previously defined as the dual motion between self and world.  An “ethics of attunement,” we can now say, involves triangulation among self, world and ideal.  Unlike pure bodily or emotional attunement, this is by definition a conscious process. It involves thinking.  Of course, there are no guarantees here.  We must “read” ourselves, the situation and the various ideals implicated, and can never be sure that our reading is right.  In this regard, judgement in the face of actual choice imbues every element of an ethics of attunement.  As suggested, this articulation marks something of a break with previous definitions of attunement, which focused too heavily (in my opinion) on the unconscious and bodily.  It is necessary though, I believe, if we are to understand attunement as a moral act.

Putting the Beatles in Context

The centerpiece of my writing class is always the lived experience of the student. I try to stress though that our experience of the world is never disinterested or given. Instead, what we see and hear and feel is always shaped by various forces. Here’s a lesson plan that seeks to illustrate this point.

Note: this is for a 75 minute class.

Lesson Plan:

To begin, I had my students listen to the Beatles’ epic “A Day in the Life,” and do a short (~7 minutes) freewrite describing the experience. My prompt asked them simply, how does this song make you feel? What does it make you think about? Why?

* This activity could utilize any piece of music, as long as 1) the students are not overly familiar with it and 2) it has a substantial entry on Wikipedia. “A Day in The Life” works particularly well, I found, because of its challenging nature and the well-documented (and interesting) circumstances of its composition.

After freewriting, I asked if anyone knew anything about this song (some recognized it was the Beatles, but no one knew its name). I then told them the name, and asked them to go to the relevant Wikipedia page and do some research. “Find out where this song comes from,” I asked. I gave them 15 minutes to read about the song. Though instructed to start with the song’s Wikipedia page, they were encouraged to follow whatever research path grabbed their attention.

We then listened to the song again, and did another freewrite. My prompt this time asked them to note any differences in what they heard or felt or thought. In short, I wanted them to reflect on how background knowledge changed their experience of the song.

Theoretical Justification:

I know from my own experience that learning the context and compositional background of a piece of music (or film or text) inevitably alters how I engage with that work. I was hoping that my students would experience the same effect, and that reflecting on those changes would make them more aware of how knowledge (and context in general) shapes their understanding of the world.

I also feel that engaging deeply with an object (especially a disruptive one like this song), and attempting to share that experience, is a fundamentally beneficial activity for young writers. It forces them to put their subjective experience in symbolic form. It’s also useful for them to see how others make sense of a shared object. This tracks with one of the main goals of my class—to better understand how we see the world, and how this differs from how others see it. Though I didn’t focus on it much, the varying research paths taken could also provide fruitful grounds for discussion.

Analysis:

After our second freewrite, we spent ~45 minutes discussing what we had written. I started off by having some students read their first freewrite aloud. Their responses were varied and fascinating. Some students wrote of being “confused” and “scared” by this “trippy” song, with orchestral parts which reminded them of the score to a horror movie. Others wrote about how some parts (Paul’s verses, in particular) reminded them of childhood. The dominant tendency, after doing some research, was to focus more on the lyrics and the story behind the song (IE, an acquaintance of the Beatles dying in a car wreck). This, predictably, lead to the students hearing an increasingly plaintive element.

Perhaps the most telling response was from a student who wrote about how at first, the unusual structure of the song caused her “anxiety.” This anxiety was relieved once she did some research and “knew what the song was about.”  This response says much about this student’s relationship with novelty.  It is my hope that after exploring this relationship in the classroom, she’ll be more inclined to take note of it in other contexts.

Conclusion:

This was a fun exercise, and I certainly saw changes in my students’ experience of the song.  I’m inclined to believe though that to really facilitate the kind of inter-contextual transfer I’m seeking, it may be necessary to have the students draw some generalizable conclusions from the activity. Towards that end, perhaps this in-class activity could be followed by an essay assignment in which students discuss this “experiment” and what it says about the relationship between knowledge and lived experience.

In group discussion I’d also like to put more emphasis on what the differences noted “mean.”  For example, the song’s background story made one student feel less anxious.  What does this change say about the importance of narrative coherence in her world?  Certainly this question was implicit in our discussion; if I were to teach this activity again though, I’d like to make it explicit.