Cultural studies and the pedagogical imagination

Cultural studies and the pedagogical imagination

Newman, Robert

Now that cultural studies is well established within interdisciplinary scholarship as well as having contributed to the reformulations of curricula, it is an appropriate time to chart some of its effects. This special issue considers the motivational attitude behind the cultural studies movement, an attempt not just to analyze culture and its transformations but to intervene and to help stimulate those transformations. Cultural studies reacted to formalist insularity and deconstructionist self-referentiality with material and social relevance and with a mission to influence. In addition to questioning categories of knowledge and divisions between disciplines and methodologies, cultural studies has delved theoretically and historically into the reasons those categories and divisions evolved.

The term “pedagogy” increasingly has been broadly construed to involve all knowledge production and reception. Its sweep naturally intersects with that of cultural studies. “Cultural Studies and the Pedagogical Imagination” investigates that intersection-its successes, failures, potential applications and ramifications. The issue begins with arguments about the social and ideological implications of contemporary education as both culturally transformative and a product of cultural transformation. The questions probed include the following: What constitutes democratic education and literacy? What power structures control the rhetoric of curriculum policy and practice and why? How can education encourage invention instead of passive ingestion? What is literary pleasure and how might it be made available to all? How has cultural studies disguised its embrace of stale self-perpetuation? How can instructors facilitate communitarian ideals in the classroom?

The essays then move to specific classroom applications of cultural studies approaches. The specific films, musical compositions, and literary texts used in classroom settings expand into considerations of constructions of gender identity in contemporary youth films, popular culture’s means of schooling our bodies, the confusing conflict of race and class discourses, and homophobic resistance.

Michael Apple opens the discussion by examining the threat to egalitarian ideals in the rhetoric surrounding contemporary education. “Knowledge, Pedagogy, and the Conservative Alliance” considers the alliance of neo-liberals, neo-conservatives, authoritarian populists, and the upwardly mobile middle class and how its “conservative modernization” has “reformed” educational practice. When the citizen is viewed only as a purchaser and education as simply one more product, Apple argues, democracy is transformed from a political into a wholly economic concept with ramifications that exacerbate existing race, gender, and class divisions. Professed depoliticization masks enhanced subordination, the redefinition of social need, and an ethnocentric understanding of the world. In this curious but powerful alliance of contradictory groups, Apple questions the dramatic implications for curriculum policy and practice, for the reconstitution of communities, and for the future of democratic education.

Robert B. Ray’s essay, “How to Teach Cultural Studies,” reviews the aesthetic focus of the French New Wave filmmakers and the later ideological repudiation of them in Film Studies after the May 1968 student uprising. For Ray, this tension between aesthetics and politics remains the central issue surrounding cultural studies today. Whether the pedagogical project be making a politically effective film or creating an avant-garde, the way out of the impasse is through embracing invention. Ray adopts Gregory Ulmer’s notion of heuretics to suggest that creativity works as much by emulation as inspiration and that pedagogy must look toward avant-garde experimentation if it is to sustain itself in an age of electronic reproduction.

Two essays in the collection find theoretical and pedagogical dangers implicit in cultural studies approaches. Amittai Aviram considers the closing of the gap between the literary and the nonliterary that is a feature of cultural studies and contends it presumes an inadequate definition of literariness. Literary pleasure, Aviram contends, depends upon a distinction between literary art and communicative message, a distinction rooted not in objective, formal features of the utterance but in how one should appropriately receive it. He sees the ideological critique essential to cultural studies as unwilling to admit literary pleasure and therefore inadvertently fostering a fundamentalist naivetd with antidemocratic effects. He argues instead for a literary competence that embraces the pleasures of reading and which arises from the ability to distinguish the literary and the nonliterary. Aviram’s subtle discussion asks that the profession promote such competence so that literary pleasure is made available democratically.

J. E. Elliott positions the practice of cultural studies as limited by its institutional analysis and the consequent ideological pressure to conflate culture with cultural studies. As a result, he argues, cultural studies has failed to deliver on its transformational promise and has drawn its sustenance not from culture but from perpetuating familiar academic themes. Elliott takes to task a prevailing disjunction between logic and rhetoric. Symptomatic of this disjunction are errors due to limited expertise and misreadings driven by a rhetorical agenda. Claiming the emperor has no clothes, “What Was Cultural Studies?” offers examples of these errors to suggest cultural studies has not been the leap into public discourse and concrete pedagogical practice it purports to be.

In “Beyond the Cave Myth: Re-mythologizing Democratic Literacy,” Dennis Carlson uses the legacy of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to consider how we might re-imagine literacy in a more democratic and empowering way. Tracing the elevation of logos over mythos, its marginalization of certain identity groups and ramifications for pedagogical practice, Carlson envisions a regrounding of education that admits a mythocentric literacy not simply to reverse the hierarchy but to eliminate exclusive polarities. Such a model of literacy permits both personal and public voices, encompassing the “universe of discourse” and promoting a democratic public language.

In “Privileged and Getting Away with It,” Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kinchloe offer a critical pedagogy of patriarchy through examinations of a range of popular youth films from the past two decades. Drawing on postmodern nuancing of early feminist theory, they construct masculinity not as monolithic but as socially shaped by complex power dynamics. The films they review typically present privilege by focusing on patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and elitism. One prevailing thread is the contrast between punishment of female misbehavior and rewards for male transgression. Steinberg and Kinchloe connect the prevalence of violence against women and gay bashing with patriarchal pathologies expressed in these popular youth films. They argue for a critical pedagogy that promotes a more flexible understanding of gender identity and formation so that the privileged youth modeled in these films might learn to connect more constructively to the experiences of others.

Peter McLaren and Zeus Leonardo’s essay on Peter Weir’s film, “Dead Poets Society: Deconstructing Surveillance Pedagogy,” argues that the prevailing bias against the popular links with the manner in which students typically are denied investigation into the quotidian forces and material relations that shape their identities. Exploring how popular culture structures notions about the body, for example, helps to theorize everyday practice. McLaren and Leonardo use the transgressive pedagogy practiced by the John Keating character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society to discuss ways the body is schooled as well as transformed. Despite its advocacy of resistance, they argue, Keating’s somatic pedagogy ultimately emphasizes a cultivation of self rather than politicizing the collective. Because of this privatization, a pleasure of resistance for its own sake only, it reinforces hegemonic relations and lacks the critical discourse and understanding of social context necessary for liberation.

In “Confusion in a Dream Deferred,” Catherine Gunther Kodat reports on her experience teaching Lorraine Hansberry’s racially charged play A Raisin in the Sun in a small, private, historically white liberal arts college in the northeast. She examines her students’ difficulties in recognizing the play’s conflicting racial and class discourses and pairs her analysis with a discussion of the appeal of the box office hit Jerry Maguire, a film that appeals to class membership while attempting to bypass race. Her essay demonstrates the usefulness of a cultural studies approach to classroom dynamics, specifically engaging questions of class to provide students with the tools necessary to critically interrogate inherited premises.

Like Manuel Puig’s novel, Vicky Newman’s essay weaves together a number of different texts to describe the experience of teaching Kiss of the Spider Woman. The novel’s rendering of the contingency and instability of memory and narration provides an opportunity to explore with students the ambiguities of ideology and character, of the conventions of writing and romance, and of constructions of gender and sexuality. By mimicking the novel’s display of textual threads, Newman asks her readers to experience the possibilities inherent in intertextual and interdisciplinary approaches. Her descriptions of her students’ responses to the experience demonstrate the difficulties of frustrating generic narrative devices.

Madeleine R. Grumet concludes the issue with a personal essay which calls for an integration of classroom and community ac a fundamental aspect of curriculum. For this to occur, we must move away from an ethos of exception toward one of relation, from a fear of the ordinary to an embrace of its texture and nuances. Grumet expands the notion of educos, to lead out, to include a leading back to our families, neighborhoods, and beginnings. For knowledge to become individual skill, it first must be shared in social space.

* I wish to acknowledge Karen Egonis and Melissa Johnson for their editorial assistance in the preparation of this issue.

Copyright Studies in the Literary Imagination Spring 1998

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