Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Coming unstuck

Our last session of New School Century! - well the last one we are in charge of. Next week's session is a town hall meeting to which the whole university is invited, and it will be students speaking, not us. This was by design, of course. We didn't want to claim to be giving a final reckoning, to corral the squirmy polymorphousness of our school into a new master narrative. So what did we say? Just that.
The first part of the class was about archives. Some student journalists who'd written a well-researched story about The New School's shocking lack of archives discussed their work - it's lovely to hear from students enthralled by the school's past and wondering why we didn't hold on to everything. Then the head of the Kellen Archive talked about her archive and the work of an archivist. The takeaway: an appreciation that in the natural course of things, stuff disappears and is forgotten - unless you do something. (I think this melancholy fact of life is less obvious to today's students, since so much of what we do is archived whether we want it to be or not, most of it by Google.) But archiving is a serious business, a significant investment of expertise and resources, especially if it does what a good archive does - holding on to more than the materials for a single narrative. Still, no archive is perfect. There will always be gaps and some things, especially those relating more powerful people, are more likely to survive than others.
The New School's failure to commit to an archives may not just be a matter of negligence or disorganization. As a cash-strapped institution, you can see why it might not have devoted resources this way. Indeed, an institution not originally granting degrees has little need to keep track of students, credits and curriculum. More fundamentally, The New School didn't understand itself to be building something. Its purpose was to remain current, alive to the needs of the day and agile in responding to them, and its founders saw that universities are made conservative by institutional inertia. Keep track of a curriculum or of alumni/ae, and people will start asking thinking about traditions. The original 1918 proposal mandated that the New School do without administration and trustees and also (this seems to have been Emily James Putnam's idea:) without a tenured faculty. It's almost as if we were designed not to have a memory, so we wouldn't be held back by it.
Still, even this is a story we're telling, and J and I clearly thought it enough of a story worth telling that we spent a semester guiding students through it! So we reprised a few themes that have helped us tell our story:
• the New History (a usable past instead of disabling traditionalism)
• arts as social research (broader than common understandings of both social science and art)
• Gestalt thinking (wholes other than the sum of their parts, and the related hermeneutics and responsibilities), and
• the ethos of self-directed adult education, Dewey's education as growth, and the adventure of offering it to traditional-age college students.
We're less sure how to tell the story of the last decades, and asked the students - each of whom has conducted an interview with someone with a long-standing relationship with the university - what they had found: we heard of lots of growing pains, as programs are more and less comfortably integrated into "the university," and also, not surprisingly, of interviewees saying things "off the record." Another challenge for archiving! We look forward to the students' reports next week.
For the remainder of the class we discussed an essay by our colleague Ann Snitow which raises profound questions about memory, especially for anti-institutional movements. In the essay Ann reflects on a project she helped put together, Feminist Memoir Project, a project designed to remedy the way the women's movement seemed already by the 1990s to be on the way to being forgotten. Ann moves beyond the usual (not untrue) observations that mainstream history marginalizes women as agents to wonder if there's anything else about the history of the women's movement that makes it slip from memory. She finds several things. Unlike the civil rights movement and aware of the way women have been objectified in the past, the women's movement avoided taking pictures. Consciously different from many movements it had no designated spokespersons. Cognizant of the way master narratives inevitably marginalize it tried not to tell one but to open a space for the excluded to speak. It didn't promise closure, a happy ending, but autonomy for all women to craft their own lives as they saw fit. Finally and in a way most painfully, women of one generation seem not to remember the struggles of their mothers' generation, something both analyzed but perhaps also mandated by psychoanalytic theories about the tensions in the relationships between mothers and daughters.
All of this seemed to add up to a story (a congeries of stories) which lacked the "stickiness" of those things which find their way into collective memories. "Sticky" is a term Ann got from our colleague Bill Hirst, a specialist in the psychology of memory. "Sticky" stories have clear beginnings and endings, heroes and morals; feminism was rejecting this kind of storytelling and the world it makes! (Recall the feminist critiques of the myth of autonomy, bad for individuals, bad for society.) But what was one to do about this? The absence of clear leaders, images, teleologies is of the essence of the movement. Another, or a more aware, kind of memory-work is required, part archive, part narrative, part act of faith that your work is important - deserves to be remembered, and so deserves to be available if as and when someone wants to remember it.
This might well remind you of the difficulties of the Occupy movement, which was reconstituting itself as we spoke. (Our class starts at 4, the time protesters convened at Union Square after picketing and exploring "horizontal pedagogy" at the Free University of New York at Madison Square Park, for the march downtown which encountered police and ended in arrests.) We explored the parallels with The New School, from its resistance to archiving to its experimental curricula and student-designed trajectories through them. So it was a perfect non-ending ending for us to flash through some recent attempts to corral it into a single story (Rutkoff & Scott's 1986 book New School, Sanjay Kothari's 75th anniversary Bulletin cover, and Parts & Labor's 2009 project "By any name" (another astonished reaction at the awful state of our archive, from which the images in this post derive), and then conclude that the university remains something which must be remade by each generation of students, indeed by each student: over to you!

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