Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Freshmen are Coming!

I have two separate thoughts about the start of the school year, and specifically about my responsibilities with respect to freshmen. Last year was my first year teaching at NYU so I (obviously) wasn't involved in any of the new student orientations because I was still getting oriented myself. I was also, owing to the somewhat unusual circumstances of my hiring, only teaching seminars for upperclassmen. This year, though, I will be leading a discussion group for freshmen during what's called Welcome Week, I will be teaching a new intro course that we've designed to introduce freshmen and sophomores to the major, and I will be thinking about how to redesign a seminar that I will be teaching for the second time as a lecture course that can be given in future semesters under the auspices of the freshman curriculum here. I have freshmen on the brain.

So, thing the first (which is not strictly about freshmen): NYU (like Cornell and lots of other places) assigns all new students to read the same novel over the summer so that they all have something substantive to discuss with the thousands of strangers with whom they suddenly find themselves thrown together. This year it was Collum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I've always been intrigued by the idea of this type of communal reading program and although Cornell graduate students were invited to participate as discussion leaders, I never did; and if this year's pick at NYU hadn't been a novel I had wanted to read anyway, I'm not sure I would have signed up here, either. (I might have, though. Counterfactuals are so hard to assess.)

At any rate, I'm not all the way through the book yet (I have until Thursday afternoon, when we have a faculty prep/discussion session), so I can't write a full review. But I do have this observation: The opening vignette of the novel is completely masterful. It is set on the morning of Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. And it is skillful in the way that The Crucible is skillful: The description of this episode from 1974 evokes all the famous images from ten years ago without ever leaving its native setting, speaking clearly without being overwrought or overwritten. It revives the prematurely dead metaphors in a way that is at once devastating and subtle, making its reader flinch but stopping short of striking her with the hard truth it conveys.

It is inevitable that in the next month we will all be confronted frequently by the fact of the upcoming anniversary. I would imagine that this could be a difficult first introduction to New York City for the incoming freshmen (although obviously I hope it won't be). McCann's novel is a completely useful framework for thinking about the anniversary, if for no reason other than as a demonstration that there is a manner of speaking that is all the things it needs to be: moved and moving, lyrical, emotive, effortlessly sensitive, and truly memorial of everything that was lost.

(Edited on 9/6/11 to add this link.)

And thing the second: The Beloit College Mindset List came out this week. For those who aren't familiar with the premise, the Mindset List ostensibly aggregates items of current events and popular culture that have obtained for the whole lives (or at least the whole consciousnesses) of a given year's incoming college freshmen. So, for example, this year's list notes that DADT has been in place for the whole lives of the members of the class of 2015 and that they were born after Britney Spears quit being a Mouseketeer. I read it through once with some interest, wondering what my future students' view of the world might be (and, perhaps influenced by my reading of the above-mentioned novel, letting my mind wander briefly to the day soon coming when the incoming freshmen will have no first-hand memory of the fall of 2001).

And then, suddenly, I remembered being a completely outraged twelfth-grader who couldn't believe what some old statisticians or sociologists or somesuch at a college in the Midwest were trying to tell her college professors that she and her classmates were like. I remember finding two categories on the list for my year to be objectionable: 1) Points that were just plain inaccurate; and 2) Points that were phrased in such a way that suggested that we were solipsistic, uncurious and completely unaware of the world immediately and effortlessly observable around us.*

In the first category is "29. They have always had access to email." Just because email may have existed in some form or other for our whole lives doesn't mean there was any kind of ready, consumer-end access to it. I remember when Prodigy first came out when I was in second or third grade, but I didn't know anyone who had it. And I remember when we first got internet access at home and when I got my first AOL account in seventh grade. I've definitely not had access to email my whole life and I don't know any contemporary who has. This category also includes "41. Major newspapers have always been printed in color." The New York Times printed its first color front page in October 1997. We were fourteen then. Yes, it was the last one to change over, but it was a big deal and we were definitely aware of it. The second category includes "25. Sarajevo was a war zone, not an Olympic host." Yes, that's true since we have become aware of the world, but its phrasing also assumes that nobody my age cares about winter sports or has any kind of awareness of the Olympics. It also includes "36. They do not know what the Selective Service is but men routinely register for it on their financial aid forms." We all knew what it was. We were all rattled by our awareness of the fact that our friends were signing up for the "draft," even though it was more than six months before we had any inkling that the country could go to war. And we even talked about whether it was fair that registration was not required of the girls.

 Part of the problem stems from the list authors' seeming desire not to use repetitive phrasing. So for example, points that begin with phrases like "for their whole lives" or "since they were born" can be declarative and factual statements of what the world has been like during our lifetime (except for the ones that are flat-out wrong). But rather than repeat those formulations, the list authors move on to phrases like "12. There has always been Diet Coke," which easily suggests that since Diet Coke was formulated before we were born, it had never occurred to us that there was life before it.** I didn't grow up with anybody who thought (or even formed assumptions on the idea that) the world began in the year 1983.

The other problem is that it takes itself far too seriously. The list's website offers this explanation of its raison d'etre: "What started as a witty way of saying to faculty colleagues "watch your references," has turned into a globally reported and utilized guide to the intelligent if unprepared adolescent consciousness."  If it were still the former, it would be problematic but neither totally useless nor offensive. But having increased its own scope and ambition it did itself in. By trying to be and sound like an absolute arbitration of the knowledge and awareness of an entire generation it negates the possibility of curiosity and observation.

So, fully a decade after my twelfth-grade self read the list with righteous indignation, I will meet students who are smart and curious and (42) actively remember life before the advent of the electric car, know that (52) their parents haven't always been able to write their wills online, and have, indeed, (56) heard of Michael Jordan, even if they have never seen him play basketball. I'll walk into my classroom knowing that this list tells me more about the mindset of a couple of old white guys and their image of proverbial kids today than about my students' broad and open approach to their world and mine.

*I suppose there's also a third category, perhaps a subset of the second, which includes things that are completely irrelevant: The second point on the list notes that for people my age, Laura Ashley has always been dead. I don't think I knew that Laura Ashley was even a real person and not just a brand of floral fabric. (And in fact, I didn't remember that she was until I returned to this list this week.) And thinking about it, there is even a fourth category of flawed points, namely those that fail to distinguish between this year's freshmen and those from many years previous. Just like it is alleged that the members of the class of 2015 have no memory of (28) Jimmy Carter doing anything other than supervising elections and making speeches about peace in the Middle East or of (32) Justin Timberlake donning Mickey Mouse ears, neither do members of the class of 2005.

** Actually, this isn't the only place where I take issue with the phrasing and tone of the list. The first point on this year's list is "There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway." Any other infelicity aside, who talks or writes like that?

No comments:

Post a Comment