Category: Academia

Reflections and Reverberations of 1968

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Since this past summer I’ve been immersed in my dissertation project, and this increased workload has not only affected my overall output on this blog but has diminished my ability to draft content based on its mere timeliness. I was photographing the Monroeville Mall (of Dawn of the Dead fame) the day before George Romero died last October, and failed to seize that kairotic moment to observe his passing and my personal history with his films. I had a second opportunity around Halloween when there were a series of zombie-related events in Pittsburgh, including a screening of Day of the Dead and discussion with cast and crew. I’ve also been planning on writing up my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, yet this still hasn’t materialized more than five months after the film’s release. Now that we’re seven weeks into 2018, I’m trying to at least recognize some contemporary cultural resonance before the whole year passes.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the myriad soul-stirring, heartbreaking, and perennially radical events that transpired worldwide in 1968. A time in which, amongst other things, the war machine seemed to rage out of control and a peace movement formed to meet it. A time when revolutionary leaders emerged to galvanize collective action and imagination, and assassins rose up to cut them down. A time of unprecedented protests and street demonstrations which were often subdued with violence. It’s the revolutionary energy of the late 60s zeitgeist that Hunter S. Thompson beautifully eulogized in his famous “wave speech.”

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

I was born nearly three decades after these seismic cultural shocks, and am still trying to grasp the sheer scope of the various events. Many of the movements and moments associated with 1968 involve irruptions in media and urban culture, and so have great resonance with my own area of inquiry. I began my dissertation last year, which was the 50th anniversary of Lefebvre’s writing on “The Right to the City.” Lefebvre was of course a significant intellectual influence for the May ’68 events in Paris. The year is also a watershed date for U.S. cities and the country’s “urban crisis.” My current home university, the University of Pittsburgh, is hosting a series of events through April considering the impacts and lessons of 1968 from global perspectives. Throughout the year I have the opportunity to engage with speakers, texts, and places connected to this legacy, and will be remarking on them in as timely a fashion as possible. I will try not to squander too much felicity. As expressed in a May ’68 slogan: “If we only have enough time…”

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A ticklish subject: Decrying, defending Žižek as teacher

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

  • Slavoj Žižek’s pedagogy became a topic of debate among critics and supporters of the philosopher after video of an interview with Žižek was posted to YouTube. In the 10-minute video, recorded in April at the 2014 Žižek Conference in Cincinnati, Žižek discusses his loathing of office hours, among other subjects. Regarding classes he has taught in the U.S., Žižek recalls telling students “If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A”. Here is the video on YouTube, or you can watch the embed below:

I even told students at the New School for example… if you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you get an A. If you give me a paper I may read it and not like it and you can get a lower grade.

  • And regarding office hours:

I can’t imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes there and starts to ask you questions, which is still tolerable. The problem is that here in the United States students tend to be so open that sooner or later, if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions [about] private problems… What should I tell them?

Zizek has always been vocal about his general disdain for students and humanity writ large. He once admitted in 2008 that seeing stupid people happy makes him depressed, before describing teaching as the worst job he has ever had.

[…]

On a personal note, I was once told at the New School by a senior faculty member that Zizek would fill up his sign-up sheet for office hours with fake names to avoid student contact. I still wonder if that story is true, but now it doesn’t seem so out of character.

I have no idea what a superstar like Žižek gets paid, and I don’t know if he actually fills his office-hours sign-up sheet with fake names so that none of the “boring idiots” come and bother him with their stupid problems, as one New School faculty member has apparently claimed. But I feel safe in guessing that he earns more to not-grade one “shitty paper” than many professors do in a semester.

The real problem with Žižek, in any case, isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and people think it’s hilarious. It’s that his view is, believe it or not, a common “superstar” view of students—so common, in fact, that if you work at a research university and actually like teaching, you should maybe pretend you don’t, lest you appear not “serious” enough about your research.

[…]

The academy is in crisis. The humanities’ relevance is questioned obnoxiously on a near-daily basis. Humanists need to think carefully about who our heroes are, and who should represent our disciplines to the public. Maybe, just maybe, this Ži-jerk has finally proved himself unsuited to the task.

I’m sure all of us have stories of colleagues basically slandering their students, and there is no more common complaint in the academic world than about the tedium of grading. I would venture to say that much of the resentment of Zizek’s attitudes stems from an unacknowledged desire to do exactly the things they’re castigating Zizek for. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to tell the students what I really think of them? Wouldn’t it be great not to have to deal with their crappy writing? Wouldn’t it be amazing to finally take the university at its word, valuing research absolutely and exclusively while making at best a token gesture toward teaching?

Indeed, it was disdain for teaching that made it so tempting to outsource pedagogical labor to grad students and underpaid adjuncts so that real professors could have the space to do real academic work. Zizek’s opinions aren’t some crazy outlier, they’re the structuring principles of our system of academic labor.

That I have met Zizek personally and can attest that he is no jerk is a minor point. That I personally witnessed him reject dinner with established professors and instead choose to sit with undergraduate students at a University of Rochester event is also fairly trivial but instructive about his actual attitude towards students.

[…]

No one has been more outspoken, or effective, about combating this “crisis” [in academia] than Zizek. He is dogmatic in his steadfast criticism of the Bologna reforms in Europe. Rejecting globalization’s call for experts instead of critically-thinking humanists cannot be accomplished through office hours and friendly teaching styles.

The risk of losing liberal arts is indelibly linked to the intrusion of unfettered (ostensibly) “market” mechanisms throughout human life. Where there used to be at least some sanctuary, now there is none. Education is just one of the last to fall.

Mrs. Schuman also uses the basic strategy that is usually employed by politically right-wing authors who try to dismiss Žižek’s political engagements, more specifically taking one of his jokes out of context. I have followed some comments of various professors online about this specific Žižek’s statement of ‘not reading and examining student papers’ and most of them have shared some sympathy with Žižek’s joke, agreeing that doing such work actually consumes a huge amount of their time for which they don’t receive much gratification. Mrs. Schuman fails to notice that Žižek is employed as senior researcher and not as a regular professor, at least at his faculty in Ljubljana and to attack him for not grading papers there is simply absurd, since it’s a formal post and it’s quite rare that he appears to deliver a lecture there at all. She also, like most of the people bashing him, fails to notice the statement was a joke, like many of phrases like this mainly produced in recorded interviews to provoke a media response, so in a way Mrs. Schuman’s text could have said to have been expected before it was ever written.

But anyone who is familiar with how he develops theory should notice that he is also the International Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Birbkeck in London, where he annually holds very serious ‘masterclasses’, which consist of multiple successive days of lectures followed by discussions with his students, where there is more than enough opportunity for those who are genuinely interested in his work to provide their comments and criticism, and more importantly, get a first-person perspective and a chance to collaborate on the development of his theory; his lectures there have often ended up as important parts of his big philosophical tomes later on. So he does teach classes, very important classes which have philosophical consequences, and Mrs. Schuman repeats the accusation against him simply because she doesn’t seem to be very familiar with his work. Those that are obsessed with Žižek’s place in the employment scheme of academia usually harbour resentment and envy due to their personal lack of luck at getting a satisfying job in the academic machinery and are just searching for quick attempts at dismissal.