Jane Sprague by Zack Friedman

The volume Imaginary Syllabi “includes writings which dream up, concoct and explore Utopian, fabulist, fantasy syllabi for potential imagined and real classroom endeavors.” Editor Jane Sprague discusses feral sites, mongrel schools, and the all-too-real labor conditions of American education.

Imaginary Syllabi

Not too long ago, I found in the mail a mysterious slender yellow book entitled Imaginary Syllabi. Hoping for some Borgesian guides to crypto-zoology or the literature of a previously unknown Central European nation, I opened it and took a look around. What I found instead was a playful, yet morally and intellectually charged, compendium of alternate courses. Some would be the cool classes at the cool schools—on mystic poetics and paranormal messages and erasure/effacement in literature. Others play around with creative writing practices. Dorothea Lasky’s “The Red Exercise” begins with a line from Gertrude Stein, “If red is in everything it is not necessary,” asks students to consider redness, and then tentatively proposes a course divided into 1) colors 2) notes and 3) feelings. CAConrad wants you to make friends with a tree, put a penny in your mouth, and get naked. Paul Hoover does some hilarious Oulipian rewriting of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 56.” There’s a current of activism running through many of the pieces and deep frustration with the educational systems and institutions at all levels that the authors have taught in—from repressive requirements, pedagogical staleness, and academic labor conditions to their experience confronting deeply rooted inequalities, racial and economic disparities, and the omnipresence of power in the classroom.

I emailed a few questions about the book to the volume’s editor, Jane Sprague, and she sent me back some incredibly thoughtful responses. They’re well worth reading for anyone with an interest in education in theory or practice and curious about how those of us who live in this country get caught up in schooling and maybe wish it could be a little different.

Zack Friedman The project seems to have two sides: it has a utopian aspect, in the sense that it seeks to not be constricted by limitations on the possible and instead pictures different ways of learning (or parodies the “rules”), but also is relatively pragmatic—many practicing teachers could implement ideas influenced by many of the syllabi in the volume. How do you reconcile these strands?

Jane Sprague From its inception, my intention with the book was to pull off both simultaneously, though this depended entirely on what people sent me, unknowable at the time I issued the call for work. Some of the contributors offer strategies you can implement in various pedagogical situations (people have used the book in this capacity already): the creative writing classroom, a writing-intensive workshop, composition classes, etc. At the same time, as editor I hope to provoke thinking about the syllabus itself: its limits, its tyranny, its topography, its malleability, say in the case of critical pedagogy and in the teaching of those who are obsessively self-reflective and constantly adapt the document to the demographic one encounters. I also want to extend an examination of what’s possible (or not) in various sites where education takes place, as “education” is always a kind of intervention and provokes students in its own way, whether by challenging their thinking, creating safe spaces for risk, revelation, and adventure or the choice to “unschool” your offspring, kind of narcissistic and anti-democratic in practice, yet fundamentally Utopian and sort of quintessentially parental-instinct-driven in nature: the fierce desire to protect one of our society’s most vulnerable constituents: our children.

I’m not sure I intend the book to “reconcile these strands”: I hope to expand them. Their contradictions. The limits certain sites of labor place on our version of “what’s possible.” What’s possible in the increasingly assessment-driven curricula endemic to higher ed.? (At least in the public sector.) How creative can you be in the composition classroom at college X where you work as contingent faculty, though no one really knows what you’re doing since no one checks … . And yet there you are, in the face of every “ism” or “phobia” you can imagine. You may want to provoke thinking about the war(s) and war culture, though this doesn’t sit well with Dean X, or any of the people who shudder at the idea of “hot-button” topics. So what about those of us, legion, duking it out in the trenches of what we must transmit (often called “SLOs” or “SCOs,” translation: Student Learning Outcomes; Standard Course Outlines), not to mention those of us, legion, who must teach texts pre-selected for us. And sometimes these texts have been authored by the department chair … . Still, in the face of all this, we forge ahead hoping to establish a space where we can work on what we hope our students might become: critical thinkers, strong writers, or at least writers who are keenly aware of the work they need to do, inquisitive readers, citizens galvanized to think beyond that which they already know. Or art-makers who think outside reproducing the real and risk activism, re-thinking genre-ism, re-thinking thinking.

So, yeah, some of the work in the book could be reproduced. And perhaps the writers who contributed their ideas hope this will happen, I really don’t know. The thing I am not convinced of, however, is that many of the syllabi themselves could be easily implemented at other sites. Or, if they could, what would that look like? Who would do it? Would it remain the same? I don’t think so.

ZF You say the book aims to interrogate received ideas or assumptions about teaching. Do our notions of teachers and classrooms inhibit other kinds of inquiry, learning, discovery?

JS One of the first ideas that drove me to do this book was a long-held fascination with the “hedge schools” in Ireland. I’m not going to do the Wikipedia version of this; I’m not interested in that. I’m going with knowledge transmitted orally. So, during an earlier version of British colonialism in Ireland (I must say it this way as they never left), there were these feral schools where priests taught children forbidden knowledge: their language (Gaelic), arithmetic, Catholicism and maybe some folklore, stories. The students were probably boys. As I understand it, the “school” was organized by parents in order to teach the children knowledge the “state” had forbidden. This is the story I knew and it has fascinated me for years. There are many feral sites, many mongrel schools, and some of the syllabi in this book offer ways of thinking beyond that which we, as teachers, writers, artists already know or dream possible.

An example. I’ll digress into autobiographica, which I know is verboten in many places of both education and culture-making. I don’t care. It’s important.

Mongrel site: Middle class neighborhood in Long Beach, California. Administration: Floundering Independent Arts Organization. Teacher: Me. Wage: $10.00 an hour (or less, I can’t remember). Constituents: So-called (or labeled) “at-risk” youth recruited somehow, from somewhere, I have no idea by whom.

So I get these kids for a week, I need the money very badly because my family has just moved to Long Beach (or, as we fondly call it, Bong Leach; huge rates of lung cancer, childhood asthma, etc.). I’m supposed to teach these kids ages six to fourteen a writing workshop. Six hours a day. For five days. Imagine that. The students are wildly “diverse.” And the last thing they want to do is write, do any of the activities I’ve planned for them (and have done successfully in a different place and different part of my life). So, a few days suck. I don’t know what to do. They’re bored. One of them is undocumented, beautiful and terrified, lives with 13 people in a small apartment. All the ones on scholarship tell me they are on scholarship. I have no clue why they feel compelled to do this but the working class child in me feels like somebody told them to say this, told them to be grateful, and I want to take them aside and tell them what’s what. But of course I can’t for nine thousand reasons. This is what I do to keep them busy and not hating me as much as I can feel them hating me: Every day, we go for a walk. We investigate the neighborhood. And then we write about it. They dig this. We start interviewing every business owner we encounter (they take notes; the reptile guy is a huge hit). In a moment of heartbreak and awfulness, we find a pet store that has been abandoned by its owner. We can see rabbits with no water, puppies in some gated thing, turtles, etc., etc. But the whole place is kind of fogged up from the air not getting around. I don’t have a cell phone so we stop some guy on the street. He calls 911, which puts him through to animal control. We wait until an officer arrives, slaps some sticker on the door and says she can do nothing until they hear from the owner. The kids and I are broken. Sad and just broken. We leave. We write. This goes on for the rest of the week. Jamba Juice. Local restaurant (we get free food at every food joint we go to; the kids love this). Reptile guy twice. Last day of camp we make a Monopoly-style map of our travels, play some invented game and have a reading of our work.

So, long answer to your question, this is why I wanted to do the book. And want to keep doing the book because I’d like it to get weirder.

ZF What kind of work is the word imaginary doing? How does this imagining become participatory?

JS This is a good one. Early on, just after I sent out the call for work, one guy I sort of know gave me all this shit about using the word imaginary and how/why I was using the (theoretical?) word imaginary anyway? Had I thought through the implications for using the word in this way? I’m not sure if I wrote back and I hope I did not because sometimes academics attach too much weight to things: sometimes imaginary is just imaginary—the imagination. The made-up. The fantastical. Now I feel like I’m going to get cranky emails about some theoretical lineage of “the fantastic” …

Imaginary is necessary because of the labor conditions described above. Imaginary is necessary because of the schizophrenia of being a writer/artist/thinker/mother/activist who has to find a way to balance the worlds and modes of transmission. If we can’t imagine the world differently, what the fuck are we doing here? This becomes especially acute in the small, usually white, usually windowless space of a classroom. So those who can find a way to invent “Mobile Mapping for Everyday Spaces” (Piotr Adamczyk et al), and breathe life into Sonnet 56 by Shakespeare (Paul Hoover), and look at AIDS again through the lens of our artists, who we’ve lost, what we’ve learned by that losing (“Close to the Knives”) and so on—give us new (or renewed) ways of thinking about not just what we teach but how, and not just what we learn but from whom, and under what conditions. I could keep going. Teaching is participatory by nature. Your body in the room is a pedagogical instrument. Do you lean behind the flimsy lectern thing? Or do you get down in the difficulty with them? What I’d like to know is: in the face of what we, as teachers, often must do—for our institutions, to keep our jobs (if the state will even fund them)—how might the students do it? My Long Beach writers were bored and grumpy. I took them outside. They wanted to go into the reptile shop. So we did. Together, we invented the rest. I just helped.

ZF You’re a poet, many of the contributors to the volume are also writers of poetry. How do you think the project of imagining syllabi connects to teachers in other fields? Or are there certain characteristics of teaching writing that are inherently different from other classrooms?

JS So many people talk about “inter-disciplinary” work. Someone once told me: “you can’t teach ‘inter-disciplinary’ work unless you have the full knowledge of each discipline.” And I think that’s really flawed thinking. “Disciplines” are “in conversation” with each other all the time, and have been for centuries. Maybe because poets are pretty much on the fringe in many ways, and maybe because many of the writers I know and associate with are out on an even further fringe (though that’s kind of imagined and invested in its own imagining anyway), maybe because we occupy this space of art-making that does bridge many fields, disciplines—eco-poetics, for example. Not nature writing, some vaulted document narrating one’s orgasm with like, a field. But writing that interrogates the very fucked situation we are in right now as humans who have wrecked our ecosystem and that of the other living creatures who inhabit/ed this planet. Or writers who are concerned with somatics—the experience of the body and consciousness housed in a body of disease or malformation. Poet Patrick Durgin and others have written at length about disability studies. And poets are often using math, procedures, computers, philosophy, and all kids of things to both make and inflect their poetry. We are also, like many artists, great thieves. So in this way alone we traverse many “disciplines.”

In terms of teaching writing, it depends on the situation. For me, in my composition classrooms, I’m supposed to teach them to argue. So I do. But I do it by bringing in material that I know will challenge them. Again, push them to think past what they already know. Or build on what they know. I haven’t been in other people’s classrooms in a long time, and I think this is a problem. As an undergraduate, I attended a very large, prestigious public university. When I was ready to apply to grad school, there wasn’t a single professor I could ask for a recommendation. Only one knew my name. And his contract hadn’t been renewed. He was the best instructor I had and they kicked him to the curb. Paolo Freire writes about this kind of education (the lecture circuit as a closed circuit) as the “banking concept” of education: talking head shoves the information at student, student spits it back on command. This isn’t learning, as he says, this is submission. So, I can’t really say if my students leave my class better prepared to write in whatever future class they may be asked to write in. What I do know, because I make them write about it in their final exam, is that they have become better thinkers and they understand their thinking about their writing better. As a writer, I see this as “success.” They occasionally use this platform to insult me (often around my apparel or Hate My Professor rating), which is pretty funny—it’s a good indicator of the mastery they now feel over their texts.

I’m not sure if I’ve really answered your questions here so I’ll backtrack a little bit. At the beginning of the semester, I always tell my students (especially if it’s Freshman Comp. because they don’t want to be there, most, if not all, of them think they suck, they usually don’t like me—I’m the grade giver, they always want to know what I “want” and they want to know how to get an A.) I tell them: We can all write, right? You can write, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. And then I go through the Syllabus. The damned Syllabus. The SLOs, the SCOs, all those things I don’t get to decide. But the Course Outline is a work in progress. This is where the writing of the course occurs. I am constantly changing it, based on them. What they need more time with. Chucking what they hate, etc. I’m not sure if this happens in Algebra. But it might. The mathematician certainly works with a rarefied language/s. And the programmer. The nurse. I’ve taught criminal justice writing—and had them read Kafka and Angela Davis (Are Prisons Obsolete?), so I know that, if the teacher/prof. is committed, engaged, inventive (creative), many things are possible.

ZF What do you think about the potential for radical education in different spaces—to what extent does the college or university remain a viable place for experimentation, and in what other places are you seeing interesting projects?

JS Well, this is a potentially troublesome question for me so I am going to generalize wildly and yet be very specific about the crux of the matter (which I also concede is probably not true everywhere for everyone): Yes, I think the potential for radical experimentation (and we need to be clear about how we define this as the terms are likely very different depending upon both students and teachers) exists. However, from my 15 years of teaching primarily in the public sector, this seems to be less possible in both Pre-K-12 and higher ed. because of state funding. Many innovative programs have been dissolved because of budget cuts at the state and local level (Pre-K-12). In California, I never know if I will have a job in the fall. And this is truly terrible for students, teachers, and administrators who are helpless to make any changes. Also, since many of us—writers, poets, artists, musicians, mathematicians—work as contingent labor, we have to be careful about the kind of radicalism we can get away with. This is also true of my tenure-track friends. Maybe tenure doesn’t protect you because many of my friends who have ascended certain rungs of academia have learned one thing very well: how to be careful. I am not saying that the college or university isn’t vital or viable—but I do see that (sometimes) more experiments are possible at private institutions. Or in Canada. Or just outside the U.S. Projects right now? I’m fascinated by the work happening in invisible/erased places: prisons. Yoga in prisons. Writing workshops in prisons. Projects of experimentation, not those driven by degrees and grades. For awhile there was this project in Seattle my former advisor, the writer Rebecca Brown, was involved in—but I can’t remember the name and now I think it’s defunct. They organized community lectures, distributed their writing on bookmark-sized broadsides. Stuff like that. The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s does a great job with its classes—they’re always changing and open to the public and pretty affordable. But I guess what I’m most interested in are the micro-projects. The ones like the hedge schools. The ones that are extremely important to all participants—the “we’re in it together” kind of thing. The erosion of the terrible power dynamic that defines so much of what we (have to) do in classrooms. That’s why the Slim Brundage piece appeals to me so much—this thing almost lost, not archived, this free school—in a bar!

ZF Asking for an overarching theory is perhaps not in the spirit of your work, but are there certain principles you wish could guide more pedagogy?

JS Well, as anyone who knows me will tell you, it is impossible for me to answer questions like this without beginning with the labor conditions endemic to higher education in this country. 70% of the faculty at one institution where I used to teach are employed as adjuncts. I am guessing that this statistic is played out to certain sliding degrees (percentages) throughout the country. Until that changes, the kinds of risks most people can take will be limited. But, in the spirit of Utopia and the book’s ethos, here is my dream (and what I secretly sometimes enact in my classes): The intentional erosion of the power structure in the classroom. Co-creating the class with students, even in the face of SLOs, etc. Teachers who are comfortable being mute. Last semester I did this excellent thing I lifted from one of the textbooks I was using for K-12 reading instruction—you just shut up and make the students organize their own discussion. I do this a lot now. They are the best discussions ever. Collaborative pedagogy. Making it up as we go along. Freedom from the textbook conglomerates (at one school where I used to teach all adjunct contracts are contingent upon ordering textbooks: you don’t have a real job until 2 or 3 weeks into the semester but dammit, those books will have been ordered! Pearson/Wadsworth will be appeased!)

ZF In your “Endnote” you envision a possible additional volume based on contributions from students, whose experience you say is often “invisible.” In what kind of ways can students’ voices be incorporated better?

JS “Student-centered” is so trite and overused but that’s what I am saying. And it’s really, really hard to do, especially given the power dynamic—as the grade giver, I have so much more power than they do, so any ruse at “let’s create the course outline together!” is a kind of feint and also maybe unfair. I love what Margot Leigh Butler sets forth for her students in “Cultural Activism”; she’s asking them (requiring) to risk a lot. And I bet they loved it. So maybe my head is warped in the wrong way and part of what I want the book to do is say: “Hey! Check out this amazing stuff that people have done! How does that make you think?” But, again, I have to speak for myself, because doesn’t that motivate most of us anyway? I am almost entirely self-educated, or like 70%. That is a long story I’m not going to tell. But I know what it is to want. To want knowing.

ZF What kind of reactions have you received? Any great and wonderful things people are doing in response to it?

JS People have been very enthusiastic about the book. The main feedback I get is from writers I know who are excited about the book—people I pestered to give me work for a long time—and are now really bummed they’re not in it, so they hope I’ll do a second edition which is great (and pretty funny). I’ve also gotten a lot of feedback from the contributors who are kind of amazed at the book as a whole and what it’s up to. And I’ve heard from writers who think it’s cool. The folks who think it’s whack, I’ve not heard from. But probably will …

I taught from it last semester at CSULB and again this summer at Naropa University. It’s been taught at Naropa by a couple of other people as well. It was taught at a few places last semester. I’ve received permissions requests for excerpts so some of it will be on somebody’s syllabus this fall. One of the contributors is using the book in a course he’s teaching this year. A bunch of people have asked for review copies (I have yet to see any of them) and some reviews are underway. You’ve invited me to talk about it here so that is all good.

The great and wonderful things are that people are using it as a kind of workbook and a kind of “thought experiment”—a way of thinking into how it challenges or might inspire/reshape their own pedagogy or re-imagine what’s possible at their own sites of instruction. What kind of experiments might be possible, what radical behavior they might be able to cultivate—and get away with! Books are funny; especially when it comes to small presses, things take time. But those are the reports I have thus far. Hopefully they will keep rolling in.

Imaginary Syllabi is available from Palm Press.

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