Thursday, February 09, 2006

What's the Point?!
Teaching skepticism, Stephen Colbert and the Grammies

I had some kind of watershed moment in class today when I asked my students to tell me why they were doing their assignment, in this case a response to an article they'd read. I asked them where they might read or write a "response essay" in the real world (which is understood as anywhere but school without me having to explain it).

They said--

letters to the editor,
book, movie, music reviews,
legal opinions and dissents,
reports on proposals at work,
scientific review of science reports,
on and on.

What I've been trying to get at this semester in Comp II is that writing is largely a process of call and response. Someone calls--through an article, book, movie, song, editorial, legal argument, proposal or report--and we respond, often in writing. It's all one big conversation, and learning to be a better writer is learning to be more effective in that conversation.

Now, today, we were talking about why your response essay should probably respond to more than one point in the original article, more than simply the idea of the original article, for the response to have any real integrity. I said "probably" because the writing itself can pay off even if the response is misguided.

I used Stephen Colbert as an example. Since most of my students don't watch the show (a majority of college students today share no such pop culture common denominators), I explained that Colbert's comedy largely revolves around the fact that he doesn't bother reading the news, he just reacts to headlines that he may not even understand. In this spoof of political punditry, he encourages his viewers not to read either so that they can be happy together in their self righteous ignorance. He calls his audience "the heroes" and he tells them "you get it," and so he makes the audience feel good about themselves and they worship him in return.

That's the joke in a nutshell. One of the wonderful happy accidents of the show is that occasionally he can actually get something right because he's just dancing in the dark anyway. But the usefulness of the example for my class was to talk about how we ain't gonna make it with the smart readers with this kind of an approach. Colbert assumes we know that and makes use of it to satirize all the talk idiocy that all but wags the dog in politics today.

When I could see my students and I were on the same page with this. (We were talking; I wasn't just spouting off the way I am here.) I said that's why I wanted them to respond to more than one point in the original article, not because I say so. And my point was, really, "think skeptically about my class and make your choices only when they make sense to you. You may not have this freedom in every class, but you need to do it in here to make this class work."

And I mean that. I want them to get the point if they're going to do something. If the point's not clear, I want them to argue with me. Otherwise, I can't do my job.

Maybe that's why I was so frustrated by so much of the Grammies last night. I didn't know what was causing this vague dissatisfaction that went on all evening--with a handful of exceptions--but it has become more clear to me today....

I rarely got the point.

A) What's the point of giving a series of lifetime achievement awards if you are going to do it so thoughtlessly that each one feels like a snub?

B) What's the point of "honoring" Sly Stone with a bunch of musicians who seem incapable of coming together as any sort of family, much less a family stone, and what's the point of dragging Sly out in the light and then not checking his mics so he didn't appear incompetent? (see A.)

C) What's the point of "honoring" one of the greatest record makers of all time, Richard Pryor, with an awkward, accidental silence and then cutting the spot altogether for the sake of time constraints or whatever? (see A)

D) What's the point of cobbling a tribute to New Orleans with a tribute to Wilson Pickett and not giving enough time for either? (see A)

E) What's the point of giving half a dozen more awards to U2? (I can't say anything about the Atomic Bomb album because I haven't heard a song that makes me want to get it yet, but I get why Kanye West's "Late Registration" matters and matters deeply and hasn't left my CD player for long since it came out in the summer.)

F) What's the point of honoring Green Day again for the same music Green Day won for last year?

G) What's the point of having Madonna dance with Gorillaz' ugly animated cartoons?

H) What's the point of having Mary J. Blige come out to sing "One" with you and then being so unresponsive to her that the Twoness of the evening felt more pronounced than before the song started, on an evening when the gulf (more class than race) felt wider than I ever remember it feeling before.

What did seem to have a point was Jay-Z with a John Lennon t-shirt on, as my brother pointed out, referencing Danger Mouse, which was then made complete with Paul's presence in the Linkin Park set. (The point of using "Yesterday" for that, of all songs, "Yesterday," was .... uh .... more obscure.)

What had a point was Paul choosing to play "Helter Skelter" just to show that song in a new context and to show himself in a half forgotten light.

What had a point was Kanye's reworking of "Gold Digger" around rival marching bands, if only because it was so damn fun but also because it provoked thought about the cultural resonance of everything playing across the stage all night.

What had a point was having Sam Moore and Allan Toussaint featured on that stage (could have used more of that).

What had a point was Bruce Springsteen stepping aside to let Katrina survivor Irma Thomas take the mic during the Wilson Pickett tribute.

Bruce scored a double by focusing the audience on Iraq for three minutes and punctuating that with "Bring 'em home!"

What had a point was Alicia Keyes and Stevie Wonder breaking into "Higher Ground" to celebrate the King vision of possibility.

If ever a night needed such a focus....