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The Shadow of the Chuckle Patch: Teaching Students Who Will Never Be English Majors

posted: 4.16.14 by Barclay Barrios

Today’s guest blogger is Anthony Lioi—an ecocritic, Americanist, and compositionist who works at the Juilliard School, where he also directs the Writing Center. He earned the BA at Brown University and the MA and Ph.D. at Rutgers University and held positions at Rutgers and MIT before taking his current position. His work has been published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Feminist Studies, MELUS, CrossCurrents, transFormations, ImageText, and other journals. He is working on a book on nerd culture and environmental discourse.

I grew up watching The Magic Garden, a groovy television show that aired on WPIX-Channel 11 in the New York Metro region. It was the 1970s, so Miss Paula and Miss Carol [sic] had long hair, guitars, and jeans that hugged their hips. They swung on rope swings, singing songs about friendship and imagination. My favorite bit (besides the songs) was the Chuckle Patch, a group of laughing daisies that grew leaves with jokes on one side and punch lines on the other. When Paula and Carol approached the Chuckle Patch, the flowers would laugh in greeting. To get the daisies to laugh again, however, they had to pluck a leaf and tell a joke. Leaf = laugh. You got one freebie with the Chuckle Patch, and then you had to work for it.

I tell this story because, having taught writing at MIT and the Juilliard School for the past decade, I spend a lot of time in the Chuckle Patch, a lot of time with delightful, capable students who are not, in the main, interested in literature, popular culture, or environmental politics—not interested, that is, in the things that interest me. The Chuckle Patch is in it for the laughs, just as MIT students are in it for the science and Juilliard students, the performance. The Chuckle Patch will laugh once out of courtesy, and then you had better make with the jokes. Don’t, and the daisies demure, watching as if you are a particularly dull sort of ape. They challenge whatever vestige of writing-student-as-nascent-English-major you still had in your dull ape brain.

When I started teaching in graduate school, my writing program used Ways of Reading, which was great for grad students preparing for orals, but which struck me, even then, as a little much. After teaching Foucault’s Panopticon for a couple of semesters, I got tired of the de-Foucault-inating necessary afterwards, the process of convincing students that not all power is bad after teaching them laboriously that all power is bad. There is a place for such an approach, especially in a Liberal Arts paradigm in which students will encounter these ideas again. In an institute of technology—and a music conservatory is an institute of technology—you have three or four chances to Reveal the Larger Context before students submerge into specialization. You have to choose the jokes such that no laugh goes unlaughed. The Chuckle Patch has other things to do.

This begs the question of the principle of choice. How to choose the jokes when you only get a couple of shots? Predictably, I figured out what not to do first. One does not appeal, I discovered, to a common context in which the subject is Chuckles—students specialties—and the method is Philosophy of Chuckles. This appears as clueless pandering: you, the person who can’t run a nuclear reactor or play a Bach partita, are going to instruct them on the Meaning of Chuckles? Not. Defaulting to one’s own specialty is also an error. Elective classes are understood to involve the instructor’s specialty; required writing classes are not. So no assignments about American climate change novels or the gender politics of postmodernism. (See Point 1: Ways of Reading.) The trick would appear to be: Engage students on issues already in the penumbra of their central interests, then frame that context with tasks of critical reading, writing, and research.

Clever, right? In my current context, I teach classes that are evenly split between native speakers of English from the United States and the Commonwealth, and international students for whom English is a second, fourth, and even fifth language. Finding the shadow of their central interests is complicated by the sheer diversity of students. Taking into account only Sinophones, there are students from Macau,  Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, and mainland China, not to mention students from Georgia, the country, and Georgia, the state, sitting right next to each other. So there is no hope of creating coherence through national culture, American or otherwise.

This year, using the second edition of Emerging, I managed to annoy my students into engagement with issues of public interest. (I am a little brother, by birth order and inclination, so doing good in the style of evil comes naturally.) They had already taken a placement exam using a New Yorker article about empathy, Paul Bloom’s “The Baby in the Well” (May 2013). I paired this essay with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Making Conversation” by asking students if empathy could be used as an instrument of cosmopolitanism. This question ran into trouble on both ends: students oversimplified Bloom’s understanding of empathy as the imagined experience of other people’s pain by sticking to a flat version of “walking a mile on someone else’s shoes” while denying the important of nationality as a category of identity. In the end, there was less feeling and less nationalism than one might have wished, so the notion of empathy as a bridge between nations fell flat. A thousand flowers had already bloomed in the Republic of Music, so what’s the big deal?

I pivoted to Arwah Aburawa’s essay “Veiled Threat,” about the graffiti of Princess Hijab, a Parisian artist-activist. This got a chuckle out of the Patch. As I had hoped, Hijab’s activities offended them because the graffiti involved the defacement of private property. The idea that a destroyer of property might consider herself an artist/activist compelled a controversy. Some students defended her as an activist but not as an artist, some defended her contrariwise, and others attacked on all fronts. The rough drafts required everyone to encounter an argument significantly different than their own. This assignment passed the penumbra test, because everyone was interested in art and property, but no musician was forced to write about music.

I doubled-down on this strategy in the next essay by choosing David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster.” I knew from other classes that Wallace’s argument drove students to distraction by refusing to preach about the ethics of lobster-eating. I crafted a question about the possibility of empathy across the species boundary: Was it possible to empathize with crustaceans? Is empathizing with crustaceans isomorphic with cosmopolitan fellow-feeling? Do lobsters have a nation? Fortunately, students in the class ranged from Francophone Cartesians to Japanese animists, both of which conflicted with American sentimentalists who felt that one should empathize with pets, but not with prey. At this point, students were ready to step away from “art” and further into “ethics,” uniting students as predators while opposing them across cosmology.

At this point—the beginning of the next semester—I decided that the Patch was ready to chuckle at something closer to home, something that might offend them across nationality, world-view, and professional ethos. I screened the American documentary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei and his use of conceptual art against the Chinese government. I asked students to consider the role of the artist as a defender of human dignity using Francis Fukuyama’s “On Human Dignity” as the frame. Though students realized that I was taunting them, they could not help but react. The Sinophone population united against the offense Ai had given to China’s reputation on the world stage, even as some argued that his activism was justified. This led to a better understanding of Fukuyama’s “human dignity” as a liberal concept: students elaborated a notion of communitarian or collective dignity fundamentally at odds with the framing text. The non-Sinophones were dragged into the chuckle by their sheer force of their peer’s reactions: one student speculated that the film’s directors were secretly working for the American government. Even students who didn’t care about international politics cared about the work that Ai called “art.” With their thoroughly Romantic aesthetics, focused on virtuosic performance and profound emotion, students from all backgrounds failed to grasp that conceptual art aimed to make a political point at the intersection of art and ideology. So offended was the group as a whole that the research component of the assignment succeeded beyond my expectations, as students struggle to find as many sources as possible to understand Ai as activist even as they denied Ai as artist.

This is the most successful writing class I have taught at Juilliard in my seven years there. Nonetheless, it is not clear whether my shadow-strategy is transferable to the community college, four-year college, or university context. The configuration of my Chuckle Patch is quite distinct, even from patches at other arts institutions. This experiment needs to be run on these other contexts to test its general validity. I am going to run the experiment next year to see if my results can replicated in the initial context. The results from this year are still in process, as the Patch struggles to move beyond the motive force of Teacher to an autonomous critical laughter. Though I still exhort students with songs of friendship and imagination, the punch lines on the leaves have changed. The daisies are aware of some differences now, but the show has a long run ahead of it.

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