Modernism and Audiences, or Killing Time

There has been much happening on this blog of late, and as I return from this mass of ideas that almost sizzle with newness to my more prosaic world of undergraduate teaching and reading, I feel my head brimming over with ideas. I want to bring ALL of this to my students. I want to restructure my entire syllabus(es) so that we can discuss, say, immigration reform and web technologies. I want to build a whole class around the Stop and Frisk app, and turn the conversation away from essay structuring, thesis statements, narrative arcs, and so on to the one that I want to be having: this one.

Rest assured, my English Composition students will still be stuck discussing themes and writing claims until they can formulate insights on their own in well-worded journals and essays. My British Modernism students will be brought back to the Eliot poem (The Waste Land) or the Bernard Shaw play (Pygmalion) on the syllabus for the week, even though we could talk about the social nature of linguistic markers in contemporary New York for hours. And it’s (kinda!) relevant, because Shaw especially builds his whole play around the hollowness of sounding “posh,” showing a flower girl who changes her accent to completely change social perception about her. Language, especially slang, is delicious, as these authors show. Moreover, such “text-to-world” conversations where we take an idea from a play from 1916 and relate it to us today are really important. But they remain curtailed parts of my classroom. Caught between my responsibility to finish the syllabus and the appeal of transforming that curriculum, I am struck in a way by the question of audiences.

Take, for instance, a previous student wandering around the hallways of our department last semester. Seeing me, Rahila popped into my office and with sweet naïveté assumed I was available to speak with her. She told me about enjoying her Chaucer class but that she kept feeling the same disconnect she had experienced with British Modernism in a previous semester. I liberally paraphrase: “These people are clever enough about describing their problems,” she said, “and I like their skills. But where am I in that audience? And, where are the books from then that talk to me and of me?”

The real Alice from Alice in Wonderland

Rahila’s real intellectual distress put me in mind of an article by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (2008; in the spirit of open access, here is a non-subscription copy), where they discuss the broadening scope of Modernist studies in recent times. For them, modernism is no longer a time-bound and hidebound grouping of canonical texts but an organizing principle with core texts and ancillaries so that “scholars now attend to works produced in, say, Asia and Australia” and “investigate complex intellectual and economic transactions among, for example, Europe, Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean.”

As a result of expansions in the field, we can and should disrupt the idea of modernism as “a movement by and for a certain kind of high (cultured mandarins) as against a certain kind of low (the masses, variously regarded as duped by the “culture industry,” admirably free of elitist self-­absorption, or simply awaiting the education that would make the community of cognoscenti a universal one)”. To emphasise their point, the article teems with references to further reading. In other words, to see Eliot’s work as simply a “high art” piece meant for elitist people with lots of extra energy for esoteric research is reductive of the literary work which teems with high and low art references, its author’s desire to be both intellectually rigorous and populist, and our own imperative to see beyond the prescribed modes of learning. It’s unfortunate that Rahila still finds herself trapped on one end of the high/low paradigm that critics working in the field find as limited and limiting as she does.

In other words, scholars and authors have already responded to her dissatisfaction–but she hasn’t yet reached them, and not for want of trying but for lack of time. She’s what can be called a new audience member, and it seems to take a lot of time for true insight to develop. (I speak from experience; eight years of graduate study have mostly revealed the stretches I still need to learn and think about.) Unfortunately, the typical undergraduate survey course hardly allows the time to cover half of what one ought to know about a subject. My students often leave vaguely dissatisfied while I follow them out the classroom door talking about all the outside reading they should do when they can. Sometimes, they invest all their frustrations into a final research paper that digs deep into its chosen subject, and after long hours of their reading and thinking, emerges at the end of the term like a crystalline gem.

This returns me to my original thought about audiences. I don’t know if Rahila read the article I referred her to, nor if my Composition students would have preferred to talk about au courant social justice issues instead of the regular lesson on a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. How can I give them those things when I haven’t given them a good handle on the concept of modernism yet, or even some basic guidelines about how to write cogently? In class, I privilege the core skills from my syllabus “Learning Outcomes” and hope that my recommendations, reading lists and the like, will at some later stage be of use to these next wave of thinkers and citizens. The new digital technologies we use certainly allow us more “room” to think and write in, but we need both space and time. How can we, as audiences new and less-new to a variety of subjects, use these new technologies to re-confront the tyranny of time?