Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Stick 'em up

Tonight was what was in effect the final lecture of our New School history course. (Next week we go for a tour of the soon-to-be-opened building and students report on their work.) The theme was Gender & Knowledge, the name of the most important of early Lang's paths of inquiry - notice it at the center of the 1986-97 curricular "map" above - but we also used work by some feminist colleagues to reflect on broader questions. My colleague J told a beautiful story about changing understandings of feminist scholarship by placing the Lang "map" between what may have been the first course in women's history at an American university in 1962, Gerda Lerner's "Great women in American history," and a course being directed right now by FemTechNet, a New School-based alternative to the massive open online courses (MOOCs) everyone seems to think are the future of higher ed. I got to talk about the work of a revered colleague past - Sally Ruddick - and a revered colleague present - Ann Snitow, what joy!

It was also our closing lecture, so we returned to questions about how stories are told - in general, and in the specific case of The New School. Our framework came from Ann's beautiful if somewhat melancholy essay exploring why feminists are "too soon forgotten and actively misremembered." I told you about this article last time. It makes use of New School psychologist colleague William Hirst's idea of "stickiness." Ann recounts how the women's movement eschewed photos and leaders, emphasizing diversity and open-endedness, and comes to the conclusion that this is a pretty sure guarantee of not being remembered!
What to do? It's difficult, discouraging even. We don't want to sell our souls in order just to be remembered, and yet wouldn't it be nice if the women's movement were more continuous, not skipping generations, each thinking itself the first. At least we can record what happens in all its richness and hope that someone someday will stumble on it... 

We were presenting this also as a way of reflecting on the way New School history gets told. This institution, in which women have played remarkably important parts as founders, students, faculty, administrators, etc., continues to tell a story of male founders, presidents and exiles. The two main women mentioned - Martha Graham and Hannah Arendt - weren't nearly as important as countless other, forgotten, women. But there are other aspects of New School history which seem to lack stickiness, too. Some of these are among the things that J and I find most compelling about it. In structure and ethos, if inconsistently,
we didn't want to be a university, with a defined goal or leader or curriculum or commu- nity. We didn't want to be weighed down by an endow- ment, a board, disciplines, let alone hoary tradition.

But to be ready to answer the demands of the day, to have the agility to discern and meet "unmet need," it surely wouldn't hurt to have a sense of a legacy of experiments, open-ended inquiry, unexpected communities, would it? Here's hoping this will stick with our students!

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