Reflections on Ken’s Big Bash

This weekend James Madison College at Michigan State sponsored a celebration of my father’s retirement after 43 years of teaching, research, and service at the university. It was a remarkable event, evidence of a special community and a transcendent academic career. Students who Ken taught in his first few years at Madison in the early 1970, and who had been back to East Lansing no more than a couple of times since, came to thank him for his influence. Wallace Jefferson, the former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, spoke of how my father’s course on public affairs and social policy challenged and refined his understanding of compassion, righteous and actionable anger, and truth, and how he’s carried that understanding forward in a stellar legal career. Adam Wright, a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of California, spoke of how my father influenced his historical imagination and drew him into a community that demanded much of him and propelled him to Harvard Law School and into practice. Dick Zinman, Ron Dorr, and Katie See spoke of building (and saving) a college with my father, of how they synthesized their disciplinary differences into a curriculum that structured student’s engagement with the world in a way that offered them a variety of paths to purposeful work. Sherman Garnett, the current dean of Madison and a former student, spoke of the enormous impact this generation of teacher-scholars had on the life of the college, and with admiration for the research on the Holocaust my father’s done over the past decade. Connie Hunt organized and presided over the weekend with great cheer and a steady watch; our family is deeply appreciative. Former student after student shared stories of Ken Waltzer’s classes, his feedback, his counseling and mentoring, and his impact.

Saturday was structured around three panels featuring former students discussing topics drawn from different areas of my father’s focus during his career at MSU. The first was on “Urban America Today,” and was convened by Dayne Walling, a Madison graduate, currently the mayor of Flint. The panel was first-rate. We heard about gentrification in Detroit, the evolving role of the Catholic church in Michigan’s cities, strategies for urban renewal around education, and the challenges of education reform in the current political and economic climate in the state. The third panel, convened by the political scientist Carrie Booth Walling, explored “History, Memoir, Testimonies, and Human Rights,” and we heard eloquent presentations of the research four students of my father’s have done on the Holocaust. We heard how he cultivated their work, and how he’s inspired a new generation of students to continue to look for and struggle with meaning in the Holocaust.

The presentations across each session were exactly what you hope for when you attend an academic conference: thoughtful, probing, contextualized, mixing reflections on process and product, generous, open to dialogue. There was pontification, but it was purposeful. Questions were answered and raised, and you got the sense of a community around Madison College, Jewish Studies at MSU (now in the able hands of Yael Aronoff), and my father’s work in the university as profoundly serious, committed, and engaged. This is something I always knew to be true, and yet seeing and participating in it congealed that knowledge in ways I’ll be chewing on for some time.

I was lucky to join three former Madison students on the second panel, which offered reflections on teaching and learning in a changing university. Deb Meizlish, the associate director of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at Michigan, presided over presentations from Cheryl Maranto of Marquette University, Randy Magen of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and myself, and we shared concerns about declining rhetorical and material support for higher education, technology, strategies to invigorate classroom instruction, and how being in the orbit of Madison College has shaped our particular approaches to these questions. Below are my remarks.

What a great weekend, what a great career, and what a tremendous way for Michigan State and James Madison College to celebrate it.


Remarks on Teaching and Learning in the University

My father’s career at Michigan State and James Madison College in particular have had a significant impact on my sense of the university, its purposes, and the role that an engaged academic can play in shaping how an institution functions.

My work at CUNY involves fostering conversations and experimentation about teaching, learning, and using technology within the university. I think with faculty on my campus at the level of the individual assignment, and I think with administrators about policy, resources, best practices, and emerging trends in higher education at the level of a 26 campus, 500,000 student university. I also spend much time in the spaces in-between, working with faculty and students on conceptualizing and implementing projects, courses, curricula, and strategies that create new opportunities for students to explore ideas or express themselves, and chances for faculty to experiment and evolve their pedagogical practices with and without technology.

One of the most exciting aspects of this work is that I get to do it in dialogue and concert with a cohort of folks who all consider themselves part of a broad “open education” movement, and who are deeply aware and protective of the historic role of CUNY in the life of the city and in the imagination of New York City’s working class. There’s a direct parallel between those folks and the interdisciplinary cohort of scholar teachers who formed the core of Madison, who we’ve been hearing about all weekend.

Open education, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, holds at its core the idea that access to education and educational resources should constantly be broadened, opened up. Among other things, that means pushing back against notions of artificial scarcity in certain realms of academic publishing. It means embracing open source technologies because of the freedoms they allow their users. It means embracing pedagogical practices that open curricula to interdisciplinary and experiential practices. And it means seeking and seizing moments of connection between what students are learning and the worlds around them.

Our work at CUNY and my place within that work is resonant with many of the ideas, values, and goals that have been at the heart of my father’s career at Michigan State. James Madison College in particular has played an outsized and perhaps a bit distorting role in my perception of what university life should be.

  • I grew up thinking faculty members everywhere had deep, sustained ties with their undergraduates, so it’s still a bit jarring to me to encounter faculty members who know little about their students and students who at the end of a semester don’t know the name of the person teaching their class.
  • I grew up taking for granted that everyone wrote a lot in college and took writing seriously, so when I work with faculty members who refuse to assign writing because of fear that they can’t possible read it all, or that students will simply plagiarize, or that “it’s the English department’s job to teach writing, not mine,” I cringe.
  • I grew up thinking that teaching and learning, that a liberal education, happened outside of and around the classroom as much as it did inside the classroom.
  • I grew up thinking faculty offices everywhere were converted dorm rooms.

Growing up in the orbit of James Madison College also gave me a strong sense of how community and a sense of belonging can intensify and contextualize the teaching and learning that happens in a large, public university. Building community at CUNY, where the vast majority of students commute to campus, is something that we constantly struggle with, and which requires ongoing care and attention, and technology is regularly implicated in that work.

  • Blogs@Baruch is an open source publishing platform I launched at Baruch in 2009. Based in WordPress, it’s a flexible space that has been integrated into a range of courses and co-curricular activities and provided a structure for a culture of writing, and dozens of communities of writers, to emerge on our campus.
  • Our largest community on Blogs@Baruch is around Freshman Seminar, where 1200 incoming students are blogging in a networked space in response to three prompts which ask them to reflect critically and creatively on their transitions to college.
  • Learning communities are connected to the Freshman Seminar experience, creating clusters of students who move together through several courses in their first year. Though they are not a replacement for the residential experience, learning communities address some of the disconnection that happens on a commuter campus. They can give student cohorts from which to explore course material, and they foster collaboration between faculty members and across disciplines in potentially exciting ways.
  • Faculty development seminars bring faculty members together into communities that reflect dialogically on pedagogy and classroom praxis. We’ve been working on developing hybrid courses across the discipline for the past year, and our process has been to carve out space for faculty members to articulate the risks and opportunities they see in changing their instructional modes, to construct assignments and assessment plans connected to specific learning goals, and to explore, select, and deploy the technologies they’ll be using in their courses. The communities that are forming in and across these seminars will become resources for the college as it determines how to go forward in the distance and blended learning space.

Another core component of my father’s career that is at the heart of my work at CUNY’s identity as a working-class, immigrant institution. Our mission is to serve the social (though not actual) descendants of the people who my father has spent much of his career studying. CUNY is very much the “people’s university,” one whose structures and values are grounded in the history of working class New York, and whose politics often revolve around how to protect or update that identity given swiftly changing political, economic, and cultural contexts.

Since I started at CUNY in 1999 the university has changed immensely. There have been concerted efforts to recruit accomplished researchers, to unify administrative and business process across the system, to raise the university’s public profile, to align the general education experience of students across the university, to address the implications of reducing state aid, and to sort through what it means that increasing numbers of our courses being taught by contingent faculty who are members of the same union as the tenure faculty members whose work they subsidize.

Each of these questions are huge, important and complicated, just like CUNY, and they each in their own way require reassessment and reassertion of the core values of the institution. We are going through trying times in public higher education. Scott Walker is attempting to eviscerate the Wisconsin system. Governors like Daniel Malloy in Connecticut who just a few years ago pushed significant investment in higher education is now taking some of that back. Next week NY state’s budget will be set, and CUNY is preparing for significant cuts to its base operating budget even though we’re at the end of a five year process of gradual tuition hikes. The ebbs and flows are dizzying, and those of us who support teaching and learning are constantly assessing the impact of these trends on the pedagogical opportunities in our communities.

My father’s involvement in academic administration and the conversations we’ve had over the years remind me that these ebbs and flows are not new. But one of ways this moment is different is in how technology is implicated. Those of us who are working in open education feel a particular burden because our machinery is also the machinery of “the barbarians at the gates”; our language and tools and methods are easily co-optable by forces who do not share our values. For instance, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were first invented as connectivist spaces that sought to harness for the purposes of experiential and experimental pedagogy what was truly empowering about the World Wide Web as a network. When Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller at Stanford got ahold of the idea, they transformed MOOCs into massive information delivery systemz that, for the most part, construct students as vessels into which knowledge can be transmitted. Here’s an idea, the MOOC, that began as a complex, messy, provisional space for experimentation, from which much could be learned. But it was quickly snapped up, its history erased, its coming hegemony proclaimed.

Now, more than ever, those of us who care deeply about our institutions must use history and our values as guides as we assess the rhetoric around the changing university. We must ask how emerging trends and initiatives impact pedagogical spaces, and we must defend those spaces. As I go forward, Ken Waltzer’s career and the ethos of James Madison College will be invaluable guides.


Finally, here are some photos we put together for the toast roast:


Created with flickr slideshow.

Collaboratin’

By far the best component of my current career path is that I get to spend a significant amount of time collaborating with really cool and smart people. These collaborations have been particularly fruitful over the past year, and it all starts with Tom Harbison and Mikhail Gershovich. When Mikhail hired me full-time at the Schwartz Institute and stuffed me into a windowless back corner office with Tom I warned him that if you put two historians together in a room for long enough, no matter how many bits you ask them to push, eventually they’re going to end up doing some history.

We’ve finally gotten around to it. We’re now on our second collaborative history project in the past year. The first was an essay we co-wrote for Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age about lessons we learned while Tom was teaching a series of introductory history courses on Blogs@Baruch. The vast majority of the work we were examining was Tom’s and Tom’s alone, and I’m grateful that he let me glom on and add my two cents in assessing the fruits of his significant labor. Ultimately, we argued that taking advantage of the variety of modes of writing allowed by a flexible publishing platform like B@B encourages an approach to the introductory history survey that focuses more on methods than coverage. Tom’s notion of a “micro-monograph” introduces students to the work that a professional historian does in a way that allows him or her to see the transferable value of those skills. Being a detective who can nimbly sift through a variety of information sources, learning how to construct meaning in the form of a narrative, and figuring out how to assess and measure the quality of argumentation: these are the generalizable skills that introductory history should foster. Of course knowing about the Pentagon Papers is important. But knowing why you should know about the Pentagon Papers is even more so.

Watching Tom teach those classes and then crafting this essay with him taught me tons about teaching history and writing. The collaboration was unquestionably positive. Writing a dissertation, or a journal article, or book chapter… these are lonely, isolating pursuits. I’ll confess that the isolation got to me pretty hard as I was writing my dissertation, and made me far less enthusiastic about pursuing a career that was dependent upon my producing books. I simply didn’t want my head to be in that space for large chunks of my life.

Co-authoring eases that feeling significantly. Those moments where you’re stuck on an idea or a phrase or an organizational conundrum cease to be internal recursive loops and instead become opportunities for dialogue and collective knowledge making. Sometimes the mere act of verbalizing the problem to a sensitive and familiar ear helped solve it. Other times we more explicitly addressed each others’ lack of clarity or precision. We ultimately had no choice but to push each other. We began writing different sections, then would trade until, over time, our voice organically emerged. We now can’t look at the essay and tell which one of us wrote what.

We’re currently testing that dynamic in the classroom, and I’m finding it just as rewarding. We’re team teaching a Digital History class, and collaborated in its design in much the same way as we did on the essay. We steal moments out of busy workdays to trade class prep ideas, articulate problems with our course structure, and plan time to plan. Most ultimately happens on email during our commutes, and in the 45 minutes before our class meets. During that time we co-author notes to guide us through our class meetings, and also an “assignments” post that lays out the work we expect of students before the next session. We then head to class, and one of us gets things sets up while the other answers questions or kibitzes (we take turns doing both), and then we proceed without really knowing which one of us will cover which bits of the class. Wednesday, for instance, Tom slipped into a really nice contextualization of how Sam Wineburg (who we’ve learned a lot from about pedagogy and “thinking historically”) does his work, and I discovered that the students weren’t familiar with the notion of historical “agency,” so did a five-minute lecture on the idea. It seems like our students appreciate having multiple voices — one noted that having two historians guiding them lent instruction in the class more authority because we check and verify each others ideas.

The alignment of personality, skills, and intellectual goals obviously play a significant role in the success or failure of a collaboration. Tom’s awesome, so it’s easy. In the spring I collaborated with Cheryl Smith and Mikhail (both awesome too) in helping Cheryl’s Advanced Essay Writing course craft audio stories along the lines of what you might hear on This American Life. Mikhail and I pushed into Cheryl’s class several times over three or four weeks to help students work through, shape, and ultimately put to audio their story ideas. Cheryl spoke to them about voice, narrative, and about how to draw lessons about writing from the act of composing for radio. Mikhail lent considerable expertise about producing audio and imagining an audience. And I was able to speak with students about scaffolding their projects, planning for technological contingency, and seeing parallels between each segment of the process — from planning through production to post-production to performance — and the acts of writing and editing. Ultimately, the projects would not have been as rich as they turned out without our unique combination of voices guiding students through. We all shared the goal of experimenting with this type of project, helping students find and capture their voices, and learning from one another.

Working on these projects (and watching others emerge over the years in the same spirit) has gotten me very interested in the curricular possibilities of collaborations that push back against the confines of the single class with a single instructor taught within a single semester. That structure is implicitly hostile to the collaboration our students will need to be able to do in the workplace. Frankly, there’s no reason we have to accept it.

The fact that collaborating with another scholar might keep one from going insane is just an added bonus.

CUNYd Pie

CUNYPie returned today after a too-long hiatus with its first trip to Staten Island, where we visited Denino’s. This was a two campus affair, as me and my homeboys from Baruch joined our sisters from City Tech for pies and pitchers, which I’ll get to in a moment. The occasion of our trip to Shaolin was the 8th Annual CUNY Coordinated Undergraduate Education Conference, at which we all presented. There’s lots going on with undergraduate education at CUNY these days, only some of which made it onto the docket at the conference. The controversy around Pathways was a subtext in each of the panels I attended, but was curiously absent in the day’s opening remarks. The general feeling I got from folks was one of resignation that Pathways was probably going to happen, we’ll just wait and see, and then we’ll make the most of it.

The keynote was delivered by Mark Taylor, who presents himself as an expert on “Generation NeXt,” and visits schools and other organizations to help them think about improving student engagement. The pedagogy he espouses consists of familiar stuff: flipped classrooms, active/engaged learning, future orientation, embracing technology (though as an information more than a connective tool), etc. The rationale he offers for this pedagogy is grounded in an analysis of generational difference, supported, as far as I can tell, by his synthesis of a range of secondary sources. Not sure if he does original research, as the papers presented on his site refer entirely to the research of others. We heard a good 30-40 minutes of talk about differences between the Baby Boomers and the generation just behind me, drawn significantly from Jean Twenge, whose work I’m not a fan of. Taylor doesn’t come down as hard as Twenge or Mark Bauerlein on “kids these days,” but rather sees in the generation’s broad characteristics learning styles that need to be adjusted to.

Taylor’s rationale was pretty Domino’s, which is to say, weak sauce. There was a lot of charm and playfulness and “I’m a southern yokel and you’re all New Yorkers” before he got to what he was trying to say. But you don’t have to be a professional historian to know that identifying the broad differences between generations is only the very beginning step towards understanding how higher education needs to evolve in the coming years. And you don’t have to be a CUNY lifer to know that our university serves a particular set of populations, only small segments of which look like the learners Taylor theorizes about. At one point Taylor argued that colleges and universities better adapt or they’ll face disruption from some unidentified, external force. I don’t necessarily disagree with this notion or find it problematic (except for when he likened students to customers). But many of us know this already, and are determined to be that disruption ourselves rather than simply to head it off. In that spirit, Mikhail and Tom and I left Taylor’s talk fifteen minutes early to go get set for our panel. In short, the keynote was a significant step down from Pedro Noguera’s rousing talk at this same event last year. Noguera knew well who we were and who we serve, and used that knowledge to speak directly to our challenges.

But all of this was prelude, prelude to pizza. Denino’s makes a damn good pie, thin but not saggy, with a cornicione that was a bit blistered, chewy, and crispy. We had four pies: a sausage (my fave), a margherita (good, not great), a half olive/half mushrooms (heavy on the olives, and quite strong), and an anchovy (to which I can only say this). The restaurant is a sizable, friendly family joint, and we were very lucky to get a table for ten just before the Friday dinner rush. If I lived on Staten Island, I would definitely be a regular. And it only cost us $13 each!

Big ups to Jody Rosen, who grew up on Staten Island, for picking the spot and then bullying me into writing this post. Only you, Jody. Thanks for organizing the outing and giving me that specific kind of CUNY Pie full and happy feeling again.

Denino's margherita and olive/mushroom pies
Denino's upskirt
Denino's sausage and anchovy pies

Uncomfortable Truths

The best, most vibrant comedy mines the depth of uncomfortable truths. I first discovered Louis CK’s standup a few years ago, and the bit that got me was about what an asshole his four year-old daughter was.

CK taught me not only that my frustrations with parenting were common, but also that because of the fact that they could be tapped for great art, they were that ambiguous stuff that makes life, you know, life. Any respectable parent feels terrible when negative thoughts cross their mind about their children. But any honest parent will admit having them. That’s why I both cringe and kind of get it when Louis CK quips “I love that kid to pieces. But I wish she was never born.” Of course he doesn’t think that all of the time… but there are moments when thoughts of which we’re not proud creep uncomfortably into our minds. It’s part of the human condition; why not talk about it? Better yet, why not joke about it?

Adam Mansbach’s book “Go the F-ck to Sleep” taps into that same feeling by playfully articulating the redundant, exhausting, and endlessly unproductive processes that parenting requires. Deploying verboten language when discussing something so truly precious as our kids provides necessary release from the quotidian torture all parents endure. Bill Cosby’s bits about parenting, which led to his sitcom in the 1980s, were funny in an observational and performative way. But Cosby’s routines are ultimately less satisfying because they construct family life as chaotic yet still under control, parents as harried but ultimately capable and on top of things even though kids say the darndest things. Now that I’m a seasoned parent, Cosby’s stuff feels less true. Balancing parenting, work, bills, marriage, life, and still maintaining some inner-direction requires persisting and progressing despite constantly not being on top of things. Most of this is because parenting is so demanding. Being able to hold in my head both unconditional love for my children and the honest acceptance that they make my life worse even as they make it better required a maturation process I didn’t realize I’d have to go through when I first held my daughter.

Watching the evolution of CK’s career over the past few years suggests the moment where it’s therapeutic to vulgarly talk about your children is but a stage. As he told Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine:

The mistake so many parents make, he tells me, is to go into mourning for the life they’ve lost. “All those early bits I did calling my kid an asshole came out of not knowing how to handle it. You distill those feelings in stand-up.” But as his children get older, he says, he’s become more confident about his role—something he wants to incorporate into the show. “They’re amazing now. It’s nice to be with them. It’s delightful. And you know, it also doesn’t last very long.”

I’ve started to see that kind of light in my future with my kids, even though the 2 year-old is a fledgling maniac and the 7 year-old is simply learning to be difficult in new ways. One particularly long trip home from an exhausting birthday party in Brooklyn a couple months ago sticks out. They were both worn down, over-sugared and tired, and either could have lapsed into assholicity quite easily. Our small car could have been turned for 90 minutes into a hurtling torture chamber. But instead the kids were quite pleasant, singing to each other and entertaining us, dozing off sweetly before we got home. The moment was a window into a future where we will be able to spend more time just being people together. We’ll often enjoy each others’ company, and have the ability to occupy ourselves when we don’t.

Of course, when we got home, both kids woke up, and took another hour to get the fuck back to sleep.

I Love David Simon, But…

David Simon can’t seem to open his mouth without revealing what a prick he is, and how proud he is of his eminent prickitude. Let’s stipulate that he’s made brilliant television, and to a certain extent I agree with the words of Steve Brier: “I abide arrogance in people who have something to be arrogant about.” I proselytize about The Wire to no end, and I’ll follow his career and devour everything he does.

But he’s got two obnoxious beefs that run through his work that I’d like to highlight: he hates New York and he has disdain for people who watch television. Of course these statements are overdrawn, but only because Simon overdrew them first himself. Here’s a clip from a talk he gave a couple of years ago at Eugene Lang College at the New School:

There is no city more vain about its position in popular culture, more indifferent to other realities, more self-absorbed than New York City…. You guys think you know urban America, you don’t know shit anymore.

Granted this is a rant and certain allowances must be made for imprecise language, but it’s still surprising to see someone who has done some of the most humanistic work in contemporary culture speak of a city as though it itself has the uniquely human qualities of vanity, indifference, and self-absorption, and then to proceed to correlate the development of these qualities with the extent of crime and suffering currently in the city. If he were to argue that New Yorkers were exceedingly provincial, I’d agree with him. If he were to argue that the national media is New York-centric, and that this is because of all the money that flows through Manhattan, and that this reality informs stories that do and do not get funded and told, he’d get no argument from me. But that’s not what he’s arguing in the clip above, or in this excerpt from an interview he did with Alan Sepinwall comparing New Yorkers’ reaction in the aftermath of 9/11 to the perspective of New Orleanians after Katrina:

Although who isn’t self-absorbed when their town has a near-death experience? Were New Yorkers not talking about 9/11 for years afterwards? Was it not a subject of intense discussion and self-awareness? Did New Yorkers not sound to outsiders self-absorbed and preachy when they spoke of 9/11? The sense of entitlement that New Yorkers feel and that they’re not willing to grant to someone else who’s had a life-changing experience is really remarkable. But that’s the nature of empathy: it only goes so far.

Simon starts this bit off sympathetic to those whose city has been through trauma, but can’t help himself from throwing a dig in against “New Yorkers” and their “sense of entitlement.” Fact is, the vast majority of New Yorkers I know who were here on 9/11 wanted immediately to find ways to both remember what happened on that day and get on with the normalcy of their lives. Thought it’s an unscientific claim, I’d bet that as much of all that “never forget” stuff came from outside the city as from the city’s citizens; New York has no singular claim on 9/11 fetishism. Simon seems to be arguing that New York’s location at the center of American economic and cultural power not only crowd out other stories but also delegitimize to a certain extent the stories and voices that do come out of the city. This perspective flattens and ignores the extent to which human and social conflict propels this city forward just like it does any other city, and it does absolutely nothing to help bring stories from other locales to light (perhaps besides fuel Simon’s considerable intellectual fire).

Simon’s beef about New York in Treme flows in-part from his sense that New Orleans didn’t get the national love that New York did after Katrina, and this argument filters into the perspectives of Creighton “Fuck You You Fucking Fucks” Bernettte and Davis “This Can’t Happen in New York” McAlary as well as the intense parochialism exhibited by many of the characters on the show. It also leads to groan-inducing expository lines like the one delivered by Annie’s friend in Episode 9 of Treme when Annie leaves Sonny, her boyfriend and musical partner: “Fucking is fucking, but music? That’s personal.” In New Orleans, such a perspective is to be celebrated because the music, food and culture are wonderful and bohemian and largely uncapitalized, the city’s people have been shat upon for generations by government and corporations, and not many people outside the city “get it.” In New Orleans, other rules prevail. In New York, if you’re a New Orleans-bred trumpeter like Delmond Lambreaux, you seem like a turkey paralyzed by an Oedipal complex if you explore music beyond that which is at your roots.

Simon is even more disdainful of television watchers than he is of New Yorkers. He begins his interview with Alan Sepinwall, who has been among the best chroniclers of both The Wire and Treme, by insulting him. Sepinwall asked Simon what he was hoping to accomplish with the flashback scene that occurs in the season finale of Treme, and Simon snaps “it’s kind of self-evident, isn’t it?” before defending the choice from a critique that the interviewer doesn’t level. Simon adds:

So it’s kind of frustrating, for people trying to blog the show each week like yourself, people trying to comment on it or to anticipate the storyline, to debate the filmmaker’s choices. But it’s a no-win situation. We wouldn’t want to have people not discussing the show, but at the same time, you can’t take the discussion seriously until everyone gets to the end. At the end, people can reflect on what they’ve seen, and whether it added up…. I’ve come to realize that the only commentary I can take seriously are people who react to what’s on screen and how that reflects on the reality they know. That’s the only biofeedback that matters to me.. All the feedback of, “I wish the show would be this, I wish the show would be more of this, I wish this character had less to do, I wish this character had more to do,” that’s of no use. It’s of no use because we’ve already finished production, but on a more philosophical level, it’s of no use. Choices have been made based on the last half hour of film. Every season of ‘The Wire’ built to the last half hour, to the endings. This is my seventh time of having the initial reaction to our storylines be, “I don’t understand where they’re going. Why do they have this? This doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t like this character.” If you go back and watch the first episode of any season of “The Wire,” or the first episode of “Treme” or “Generation Kill,” knowing the ending, the choices will be entirely reasonable as a first chapter of something that is novelistic. If you experience it only as something that’s an episodic entity unto itself, I can’t answer that, because I don’t really think about that. I’m not irate about it, I just can’t take it seriously.

So, this is effectively a rant against the consideration as episodes of blocks of television that are constructed and presented as unique entities once a week, with beginning and ending credits, and an assertion that you really can’t say much of value about the arc of a season or a series or a character until you first see all that the “filmmakers” have to say. That’s just idiotic, and flies directly in the face of Simon’s own claims that the art he produces will not allow fundamental human truths to be distorted by the restrictions of form.

Simon acknowledges in the interview that there is space for criticism and discussion of his work, yet he repeatedly detours any question Sepinwall asks about arc and plot and characters and choices that might lead to some reflection and introspection about human nature into rants about how most viewers and critics are brainwashed by tv so deeply that we don’t really know how to watch a show like this:

I don’t mind if a character is selfish or insecure. I just don’t need all my characters to be winning. And in the same way that people often miscalculate or fail to acknowledge the equivocation between high-stakes and plot itself, I think people generally mistake their dislike of a character as poor acting.

Simon has, over the years, become ever more certain that he knows The Truth and that there’s a pretty good chance that you and I do not. Much like Creighton Bernette, who we see once in the classroom and learn immediately that he is a pretty crappy teacher, Simon is much more interested in polemic than in dialogue. His polemics are smart, interesting, entertaining and often right-on. But they’re also becoming gradually more obnoxious in how they proclaim Simon’s single perspective and urinate upon all others. This approach informed some of the fifth season of The Wire, which centered around a fairly simplistic and nostalgic rant about the demise of newspapers. And it’s present periodically in Treme, a show I love, but one whose perspective is represented by a title that doesn’t sport an accent mark even though it’s sometimes spelled with one.  If you don’t know how to pronounce Treme and aren’t sufficiently motivated to get it right, what you think doesn’t really matter.

The Name

Olly Olly Oxen Free, Day 318 of 365

Creative Commons License photo credit: DieselDemon

I changed it. I’ll probably change it again. I’m kind of jumping in here with half-formed plans, hoping the plunge will help me form them.

I’ve had this space for a while as an aggregator and digital cv, and it was called, smartly, “Luke Waltzer: Educational Technologist | Historian.” When I was about to hit publish this afternoon I shuddered at the header, and quickly changed it to A Blog of My Own A Space of My Own.  I’ve written at and edited Cac.ophony.org for a few years now, and have gotten to feeling somewhat restrained by that space: our wonderful fellows post there, and I feel as though increasingly my posts there should be tied to my ed tech work at the College. But I want to write about other things, too — sports, music, politics, parenthood, history — and don’t want to feel I have to think twice before doing so.  So here I am.

Bloviate it is… for now.  Not only am I hostile to the concept personal branding, but I also have the good fortune of sucking at it.

Two Larges at Lombardi’s

Imagine a tall man, a shock of the blondest hair possible swept across his head, marching a large pie from one of the best joints in the Bronx across 20 or so rough blocks, destined for a park bench where he can munch while listening to opera.  Or, a young Latvian immigrant, recently arrived in Southern California, listening excitedly as a friend talks about this amazing pie, “with MEAT on top.” Or a kid growing up in Mid-Michigan, amidst a pizza culture dominated by the local chains Domino’s and Little Caesars, finding that there’s something unique and special in the thick dough and delectable sausage of the pies made at DeLuca’s, the local family Italian restaurant.  Or a transplant to Manhattan who is happy that he lives within delivery distance of the restaurant in which we sit, but who will not have a pie delivered because of what it loses in transit.

Plain pie at Lombardi's. Photh by Matt Gold

Our plain pie at Lombardi's. Photo by Matt Gold.

Last night at Lombardi‘s, while the San Gennaro Festival raged outside, I shared stories and two larges with the other charter members of CUNY Pie– Boone Gorges, Matt Gold, and Mikhail Gershovich.  The pies–one plain, one sausage and spinach–were very good, though not great. I got the sense that there wasn’t much craft in them, that they were a product of practiced motion more than passion.  That’s a totally understandable result from a place that’s been operating for more than 100 years, that serves locals, but also serves a lot of tourists.  I was most impressed with the sauce, in both its sweetness and the nature of its spread.  There was just the right quantity for it to gather when I folded my slice, which nicely concentrated its flavor.  The crust– though Boone argued that it could use “another 30 seconds”– brought the right amount of crunch. The sausage was forgettable.  Perhaps the plain could have used a touch more fresh basil.  I won’t complain, it was satisfying.

So was the conversation.  Beyond sharing our individual histories with pizza, we talked about parenthood, family, and future locations for our meetups.  Tontonno’s in Coney Island? Yes.  A spot to be named in Jersey? Perhaps.  Neopolitan in New Haven?  Not me.  (Let the Yalies eat it, I say).  Mostly, though, we talked about CUNY, the edtech universe, and our various projects.  We criticized, confessed, and we praised.  We stayed long after I finished that last slice (which happened to be the smallest of the plain pie… thanks, guys!), and the thought of ordering another pie to scarf down before departing probably crossed each of our minds.  Perhaps we should have.

Next time.  And, hopefully, you’ll join us.