Academic Film: Admission

Tina Fey, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben in Admission (2013)

Tina Fey, Wallace Shawn and Gloria Reuben in Admission (2013)

By now you’ve probably seen that New Republic article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”, and all the rebuttals, and all the rebuttals to the rebuttals. In the article William Deresiewicz provides a rather thorough and convincing (if unoriginal) critique of elite college preparation. It’s a hyper-competitive process that begins at infancy (for kids from elite families), encourages the most cynical and cutthroat behavior from students, and, as Deresiewicz and others have argued, undermines the very purposes of college. (Personally, I liked the way the film The History Boys dealt with all this in a British context.) My biggest problem with the article (besides his swipe at race-based affirmative action) is that he had very little to say about public universities, community colleges and for-profit colleges where the students aren’t all college-prep-programmed youngsters, and where “admissions” operates under a whole different paradigm. This is by far the largest and fastest growing segment of higher education, and the one that most of us will encounter. He can critique the Ivy League all he wants, but the kind of prestige signified by an Ivy League education is one that is remarkably resilient, even among those of us who are happy with our non-Ivy League educations, or who never attended college at all. To some degree I think we all buy into and attach value to the prestige of being affiliated with an Ivy League institution, even when we should know better.

In my “Storifying the Academy” article that I posted a few months ago I made a backhanded comment about the recent academic film Admission. After viewing it again, I stand corrected. There’s more to this film than Lily Tomlin’s performance (though she does have some great lines). Admission is actually an interesting examination of the admissions process, this ritual of rejection and acceptance that millions of students put themselves through each year. The film dramatizes what this process means for the administrators and students involved, and what this process says about the way higher education functions, particularly at its most elite levels.

Like most academic films and novels, this one has been judged according to how well it represents the real-life academy. Suffice to say there are exaggerations and embellishments, but not all of them are bad. When the film was released in theaters in 2013, Inside Higher Ed hosted a discussion with some actual admissions officers about the veracity of the film. Vulture published an interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of the novel upon which the screenplay is based, and screenwriter Karen Croner.  Korelitz and Croner provide an interesting discussion about the process of bringing this particular novel to the big screen, and also about how film adaptations often differ from their novels.   (And since I began with the New Republic article it is also worth noting here that William Deresiewicz himself has written about academic fiction before: see “Love on Campus”)

In her study of academic fiction The University in Modern Fiction: When Power is Academic, Janice Rossen writes about the ways that power, inclusion and exclusion define university life. For Rossen, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is the exemplary academic novel because its main character yearns to be a part of Christchurch at Oxford, but as a working-class stone mason and an autodidact he really stood no chance to enter the hallowed walls of the university. He didn’t have the proper training and pedigree, and there was no way for him to work his way into that kind of prestige.

Admission follows the story of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an admissions officer at Princeton. The Director of Admissions (Wallace Shawn) is distressed over the fact that Princeton has fallen to number 2 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. (Of course, we don’t really put any stock in those rankings, do we? They’re just fun to look at, right?) And so he sends his admission team out to find the freshman class that will put them back on top.

Portia accepts an invitation from John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the principal of The Quest School, an alternative high school with an eccentric curriculum, to come speak to his students about admission to Princeton. It is there that Portia meets a modern-day “Jude the Obscure” in the form of Jeremiah, a student with a terrible academic record, who also happens to be a brilliant autodidact who has aced every AP test that he took (without taking any AP classes) and has a near perfect score on his SATs.

In one sequence Portia gives her admissions spiel to students at an elite prep school, where, decked out in uniforms, they listen to her with respect and obedience. Cut to her scene at Quest, however, and Portia finds herself giving the same talk in a barn (part of the school’s hands-on learning environment) and facing a barrage of snarky questions and comments from a bunch of smart-aleck students such as: “Why should I apply to an elitist institution with a history of anti-black, anti-gay and anti-female oppression?” and “Wouldn’t you be better off sitting in your room reading books?” and “Don’t people just need a college degree if you want to pursue the societally approved definition of success?” As one student puts it, “what we want is to leave the planet better than we found it.” The questions and comments are certainly valid and refreshing to hear, but they also represent a certain sarcastic and cynical attitude toward formal education that has become all too cheap and easy. Portia finally fires back at them with a spirited defense of her profession. “I have a question for all of you. Just how will you leave the planet better? Do you want to eradicate disease? Well, you’re going to need a medical degree. If you want to create new drug therapies, that’s a Ph.D. If you want to defend the innocent and secure justice for all, I regret to inform you that you will have to go to law school!” And I think she was right to push back against their knee-jerk sarcasm. It’s easy to lapse into this snarky attitude about higher education. Yes, higher ed has certainly earned those doubts with its constant tuition increases, expensive textbook extortion schemes, and its massive student loan debt system. But I doubt any of us really wants to have surgery performed by a self-taught doctor whose only training came from reading Gray’s Anatomy and studying biology and chemistry MOOCs on Academic Earth.

Portia soon finds out (MAJOR SPOILER) that Jeremiah may be the son that she gave up for adoption years ago when she carried out an unexpected pregnancy while a student at Dartmouth. And then on top of that emotional bombshell, she experiences an embarrassing and humiliating breakup in a hilarious bit where her nebbish English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen) leaves her in the middle of a dinner party by confessing that he’s impregnated a colleague who Portia describes as “that vile Virginia Woolf scholar.”

It’s obvious why Portia’s judgment about Jeremiah is skewed when it comes to his chances for admission. The breakup has left her emotionally out of sorts, and learning about Jeremiah brought back so many difficult questions about her life choices. Portia is so intent on him getting into Princeton because she feels he deserves it, because she wants him close to her, and because in her worldview, this is the best thing that she can do for him. In the process she fails to consider one simple idea: Maybe it is Princeton that doesn’t deserve to have Jeremiah. Maybe he would be better off somewhere else – say a liberal arts college like Reed College – where his eccentricity would be seen as an asset rather than a liability.

The film deserves credit for its portrayal of women in positions of authority in the academy. There’s an interesting give and take between Portia and her colleague Corinne (Gloria Reuben) who are both vying to be the new Director of Admissions. Throughout the film we see women having to negotiate child-rearing and babysitting, the difficulty of getting “emotional” as a woman in a professional setting, and jokes about the need for “sisterhood” even as they are in fierce competition for the same positions.

Mostly the film worked for me because it shows the irresistibility of these hierarchies of prestige. Getting into Princeton means something. Winning an appointment as an Ivy League professor means something. Even for those of us who claim we don’t believe in such hierarchies, we still lapse into celebrating that prestige, when say, an Ivy League school happens to hire a scholar whose work that we really like, or when one of our own children or family members or friends gets accepted or hired by one of these schools. Being admitted into those halls is incredibly validating, a powerful signifier of status and success, and that kind of prestige has been centuries in the making.  Admission makes the case that even when we’re at our most critical of Ivy League prestige, it can’t easily be shaken, least of all by those who are deeply embedded within it.

Academic Film: Dear White People

dearwhitepeople

This is not a drill. I repeat. This is not a drill. There is a black academic film coming to theaters this fall.

The highly anticipated Dear White People is a satirical film about black students at an Ivy League university. It is the debut film of director Justin Simien and stars Tessa Thompson, Tyler Williams (aka that kid from Everybody Hates Chris), Teyonna Parris, Brandon P. Bell and Dennis Haysbert. The advance buzz for this sounds promising. Already people are comparing it favorably to Spike Lee’s School Daze. There certainly seems to be potential here to spark discussions about race and class in higher education, appropriation, authenticity, and intraracial black politics. The first full trailer for it was just released yesterday and it looks great. Zeba Blay’s review on the blog Shadow and Act from the film’s Sundance screening back in January is worth reading to get a glimpse of what’s ahead. Needless to say, I’ll probably end up writing a few more words about this one before it’s all over.

On Blogging and the Brooklyn Bridge

WP_20140705_031

It’s been a month since I’ve updated the blog. For the last month or so I’ve been immersed in other writing projects. I submitted an article to a scholarly journal, I’ve worked on another creative project, and I spent a couple of weeks heavily immersed in studying The Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights in order to lead a new tour that I just started last week. Through this process, and through observing how some other writers and academics use social media, I’ve learned that I’m just not very good at sharing my work-in-progress. From my observations, it seems that the most effective academic and literary social media users are those who can constantly update about what they are reading and writing. I just can’t do that. I’ve found that posting about my research online while I’m working on it can be a distraction for me until I get it into some kind of concrete form. It involves too much distraction in the way of other stories and controversies flooding my attention. And I’ve found that when someone actually does take an interest in my work, that can also sometimes bring on more obligations to interact. Furthermore, there are times when I just don’t want the whole world to know everything single thing that I’m doing and thinking, an attitude which seems increasingly quaint these days, and an attitude which, I believe, will eventually be seen as passive-aggressive and threatening. (“What are you hiding???!!! Why don’t you want people to know where you are and what you’re doing???!!!”)

WP_20140705_002

My Brooklyn Bridge study has been instructive. I now have a two-hour tour that I feel fairly confident about, but it took a while to get there. I’ve been working on this for a while, but I really committed myself to it in the two weeks leading up to my first tour on July 8. I read David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, studied the internal scripts from my company, watched the Ken Burns documentary a few times, and consulted other books on the subject so that I could at least bluff my way through the engineering and architectural parts. I wrote a script, edited it, and then pared it down to two compressed pages that I can carry with me and consult on the tour route for facts, dates and quotes. And I’m still working on editing the script. I’m always adding and subtracting from tours. They’re never really “finished.” All along I felt little inclination to share all this information online, until now.
WP_20140706_001
I’m not even sure how much longer I’ll do the Bridge tour. The fall approaches and I probably won’t be doing tours that much after August. (More about that later.) But the information has been helpful. Even though I knew that my tour guiding career might be winding down this summer I wanted to learn this tour because I thought it might be helpful with other research and writing that I’m doing. Studying for this tour sent me back to Samuel R. Delany’s novella Atlantis: Model 1924, which contains scenes on the Brooklyn Bridge, including an imagined meeting between the main character, Sam (based on Delany’s father), and the poet Hart Crane. I published a short article about Delany’s Atlantis in The Annals of Scholarship issue on Delany’s work, “Cruising the Disciplines.” (Which, unfortunately, is not available online, but can be ordered here). There are other literary connections to this tour as well, including Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Walt Whitman, all of whom have points of contact in Brooklyn Heights.

So I’m not sure what this all means for the writing part of my career. I wish I were better at doing that sort of sharing because it would probably mean a better online profile for me. But I can’t help it. I just find too much digital engagement a nuisance when I’m working on a piece of writing. I’d be much better off if I were able to tweet and blog about every book and article I’m reading and every film I’m watching, and then collate all of that into longer pieces of writing, but my mind doesn’t seem to work that way. So, the best I can do are these periodic updates about what I’m working on. Maybe I’ll get better at it as time goes on.

WP_20140705_022

Note: You can watch Samuel Delany reading from Atlantis: Model 1924 and other writings in this series of videos filmed at Judson Memorial Church in 1999, originally released as Atlantis and Other New York Taleshttps://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC293E246B84BFC3D

The Nostalgia Trap

Image

 

Recently, I sat down with David Parsons for his podcast The Nostalgia Trap.  As he describes it: “This podcast features interviews with academics, writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, and all sorts of other interesting folks, using their personal biographies as the starting point for wide-ranging conversations about the state of our world. By filling in the potholes on Memory Lane, we hope to see the road ahead more clearly.”

You can access the Episode 9 interview with me on The Nostalgia Trap website.  This episode and other episodes of The Nostalgia Trap can also be downloaded on iTunes.

 

Reading Long Division in Mississippi

longdivisionbook

Reading Long Division in Mississippi

“Is it a book for dubs or a book for us?”

“Us mostly,” I told her. “But it’s complicated. It’s a book for us and a few dubs, I guess.”

There’s not much I can say about Kiese Laymon’s Long Division that hasn’t already been said. The novel has been well-received critically, and having read it three times now I personally believe it deserves every sentence of these accolades. Zandria Robinson’s take on the novel on New South Negress probably comes closest to my own feelings about it. Like her, I also wanted to sit with the book for a while and absorb it before I attempted to put together any kind of coherent public thoughts on it. Being that it’s a novel written by a young black male English professor from Mississippi, and which deals with hip-hop and time travel and language (among many other things), I knew this was a novel that I would have to read and reckon with. Even now I think I can only provide some partial comprehensions and incomplete understandings. But that feels OK. I think this is a book that invites re-reading and one I will come back to again and again as I hear from others who have read it. It is a novel that I am looking forward to putting it into that all-important laboratory of the classroom, to see how students (especially the ones younger than myself) respond to it.

Long Division is a story about a 14-year-old kid named Citoyen “City” Coldson, and it begins in 2013, in Jackson, Mississippi, where City and his classmate LaVander Peeler are preparing for a televised competition “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence”, a contest that requires students to use an unusual word in a “correct, appropriate and dynamic” sentence. The novel starts with Coldson and Peeler busting crude jokes on each other in the way that teenagers often do. Right away, you get the sense that this is a novelist with an ear for the dialogue of youngsters. Like the best episodes of South Park Laymon captures that dynamic vulgarity that teenagers throw at each other when adults aren’t around. Early in the story the arrogant LaVander Peeler flexes his sentence-making muscles to signify on City:

“African Americans are generally a lot more ignorant than white Americans, and if you’re an African-American boy and you beat not only African-American girls but white American boys and white American girls, who are, all things considered, less ignorant than you by nature – in something like making sentences, in a white American state like Mississippi – you are, all things considered, a special African-American boy destined for riches, unless you’re a homeless white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues, and City, you are indeed the white fat homosexual African-American boy with mommy issues who I shall beat like a knock-kneed slave tonight at the Nationals.” Then he got closer to me and whispered, “One sentence, Homosexual. I shall not be fucked with.”

We learn that LaVander was once got caught and reprimanded by their teacher for using the word “faggot” in school, and so henceforth refers to City by the clinical term Homosexual – again, just the sort of inappropriate silliness one expects from school kids, and which is rendered hilariously throughout the novel. The rest of the book is full of examples of the clumsy, awkward ways that the kids deal with big issues like sexuality and race and history. City actually likes girls, but he admits to some attraction to LaVander, and queerness is more than an after-thought in the story.  Instead it is written in as an essential part of this complex vision of the South rendered in the novel, a vision which again and again insists upon complexity where monolithic simplicity about the region usually suffices and passes as common sense.

The second chapter introduces us to another version of Long Division, a mysterious book without an author that is set in 1985 and also features a character named City Coldson, and which rings familiar to the 2013 narrative introduced in the first chapter. In the background of the 2013 story is a missing black teenage girl named Baize Shepard, whose face is being flashed on TV screens and passed around on flyers in hopes that she will be found. 2013 City reads Long Division set in 1985 and starts to notice references to himself, to Baize, and other elements of the place where he lives. Meanwhile 1985 City finds a hole in the woods behind his grandma’s house and discovers that stepping down into the hole allows him to travel between 1964, 1985 and 2013. This recursive quality of the novel-within-a-novel reminded me of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, where the main character, Kid, carries around a notebook that contains elements of the very novel that we, the readers are already reading. (Certainly there are plenty of other precedents for this metafictionality.) In 1985 City has a crush on a young girl named Shalaya Crump. I immediately knew what Laymon was talking about when he wrote that the surname “Crump” is a familiar name, but one he’s never seen represented in literature. And I immediately felt some affinity for all the familiar things that I found in the novel – the difficult country-ass made-up black names, and the familiar cultural and musical references to the South, and the young black kids coming-of-age in a still hostile South, trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.

Like the characters in Long Division, I too, read a strange book called Long Division while I was in Mississippi. I read it on a trip that I took a couple of weeks ago to my hometown of Meridian. I decided to take the Amtrak this time. It’s a 24 hour trip on the Crescent Line from NYC to MEI. The shoddy airline service into my hometown and the expensive cost of plane tickets in the summer season made me decide to give the train another shot. The length of the trip was a bit tedious, but I enjoyed the ride – the steady rumble of the train on the tracks that gave the ride an almost meditative quality, the sound of the train horn as we sped through the backwoods and small towns of the Southeast through the night, and the familiar country manners of the train crew, mostly Southerners themselves, and the pleasant salt-of-the-Earth passengers, quick to give each other a hand with getting bags down from the racks, or apologizing as they swayed back and forth bumping into other seated passengers, getting used to the unsteady footing of walking around the swaying cars. I read through Long Division during the trip, seated in my assigned coach seat, or back in the lounge car, where I read the novel at one of the big comfortable tables, charged my phone in the outlet next to my seat, and sipped on $2 cups of coffee from the food counter, putting the book down after reading a few pages to scribble a thought or two into my notebook, then picking it back up again. I continued reading the novel when I got back home, lying in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, listening to the “Quiet Storm” show of R&B slow jams on one of the local black radio stations at night, just as I did years before.

From reading interviews with Kiese Laymon online, and reading the other book he published in 2013, a collection of essays titled How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, I know that he grew up in Jackson, MS and that his mother taught at Jackson State University. My hometown, Meridian, is 80 miles to the east of Jackson along I-20, close to the Alabama border. I saw in the novel’s main character City my own younger self, looking in the bathroom mirror, turning my head from side to side worried about whether the barber got my line straight enough, trying to brush out those waves and look fresh going to mall, about the only exciting teenage activity for a preacher’s kid in Meridian. City, and Shalaya, and Baize and LaVander reminded me of my own nephews now, 14 and 16 and 22, carrying around their own wave brushes, walking around the mall the way I did years ago. It reminded me of the awkwardness of being a black teenager in that city, and it filled me with sadness knowing how they are being judged and will continue to be judged, and how they’ll have to learn to steel themselves against the constant slights and dismissals that will come their way, in the same painful way that I did growing up in that most white supremacist of white supremacist states, where muhfuckas never loved us and never will.

I have to admit, I started reading Long Division with some healthy skepticism. Was this just another one of those black literary fiction novels marketed as an authentic take on the black experience, but which turns out to be a guidebook for white liberals on Negro folkways? Was this just another a saccharine coming-of-age story about lost innocence or some shit? Basically, I had all my defenses up going into this thing when I first read it, and page by page Kiese just knocked them all down. I laughed out loud at its craziest lines, I ruminated over the meanings of its most challenging scenes (I’m still not sure what to make of Jewish Evan Altshuler and The Klan in 1964, or Pot Belly chained up in the shed in 2013, or what happens to Baize Shepard in the end), and I reminisced on the memories it conjured up from my own awkward Mississippi childhood. This is a novel full of the blues, the Holy Ghost, the crunkness, the lying, the testifying and the signifying. It brought to mind Oukast’s Aquemini (quoted in the epigraph), and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Long Division is a novel about fatness, blackness, time travel, fantasy, digital technology, language, sexuality, religion, compassion, retribution, and forgiveness. It is a vibrant expression of the power of the written word, about the art of fiction, about the novel’s persistence against the technological odds. Yes, it is also a reckoning with our home state’s ugly past and present, still festering in white resentment about being forced to change their “traditions.” That resentment was unmistakably on display in the Republican primary campaigns that were going on while I was there, as I watched the 10 o’clock news broadcasts showing gray-haired fat old white folks sitting in community centers and churches around the state, listening to all the bullshit promises made by their Godly, respectable politicians in suits, and shaking their fists at Obummer and his gay liberal Muslim gun-haters coming to enslave the white Christians with their socialist health care system, or something. (Also, Benghazi.)

All the while the novel is shot through with wicked humor. In an interview at the back of the book Laymon says: “I don’t trust people or writing that are afraid of laughter.” The comparisons to Invisible Man are abundant in the reviews I’ve seen, and I know every black male writer with even a whiff of satire in his work ends up being compared to Ellison sooner or later. But in this instance the comparison is apt, and I suspect that picking apart the connections between Ellison’s writing and Long Division will keep the critics busy for a while.

But this is not just a novel for me and my own subjective reminiscences about life in Mississippi. It would be a mistake to take this only as another “identity” novel. Laymon has gifted us with one of the most innovative novels to explore our complicated relationship to the Internet. The book pressed upon me an idea: Perhaps the only way we can understand how we live now in this media-dense environment is to alienate ourselves from it long enough and from enough distance to get any kind of perspective on it. The network is so immersive, so demanding of our attention, so totalizing in its saturations, that it seems increasingly difficult to contemplate the fullness of the thing since we have become so dependent on it for so much of our information. 1985 City’s trip into 2013 really captured the strangeness of the way we live now; just how much we are emotionally invested in our devices, the way we use language on social media, the immersion in the constant barrage of frivolous spectacles on the screens in our homes. This is not just a novel about 21st century Southern life, but one that also pushes toward understanding the technological quandaries that humanity continues to put itself in with every new invention.

Long Division is a richly textured novel that rewards re-reading, with a complexity that doesn’t reveal all of itself to you right away, that expresses what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote that “for all is useless without that which you may guess at many times and not hit.” This is the kind of novel that keeps you guessing about its many allusions and meanings, that is seductive and elusive in all the best ways. The episodes in 1964 hearken back to Freedom Summer, as the 50th anniversary commemorations of that summer are upon us. Laymon just did an insightful interview for Guernica with filmmaker Stanley Nelson, director of a new PBS documentary about Freedom Summer. 1985 Long Division gives us a taste of the South in the crack era, and that familiar scapegoat that I grew up with, of youngsters raised up North in the wild streets of Chicago (and other cities) being sent back down South and allegedly bringing all their gang ties and violence back with them. 2013 Long Division gives us youth culture filtered through the Internet with its YouTube-fueled microcelebrities, and all its strange linguistic formations created by the compressed text of Twitter and Instagram and Vine, and the ever-shifting, improvisational slang of the viral Internet.

Reading Long Division again on my return trip back to NYC, as I looked at the book sitting there on the formica table in the lounge car, I thought about how the book addresses the very object of the book itself. Long Division as a material text is a character in the novel. It was Ezra Pound who said that “Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.” Yeah, that all sounded so much more profound before a person could actually walk around with an actual “ball of light” in her hands in the form of a glowing, dynamic digital device that connects you to a global communications network full of endless information and amusements. At its best Laymon’s Long Division helps us to recapture the idea of the book as an object of wonder and mystery, as something apart from the network, imbued with its own unique magic. It attempts to make that magic accessible to people who have never really been included in literary culture.  Repeatedly I’ve heard Laymon say in interviews that he wanted to write a book to people who have not been written to.  Long Division cuts right to the matter of why we read novels in the first place, of why we need stories, of the place of the book in our digital lives, and of the beauty and pleasures of language, all filtered through a Southern way of seeing the world.