Tag Archives: education

On Elite Education (w/ Néojaponisme)

In his 2005 article The Myth of Japanese Universities, Marxy of Néojaponisme penned a short, but biting critique of the supposed ‘elite’ Japanese universities (such as Tôdai; I’ve met girls professing to simply want to marry a graduate thereof).

I quote in some length, because Marxy (himself a graduate of, as alleged throughout Neojaponisme, Harvard), compares the liberal arts education there and yonder through meaningful criteria, and draws sensible implications. This is not only relevant for the Japanese ‘elite’ universities, but also, very much so, for Australian ones, and its culture in general.

As a disclaimer, I am a graduate and occasional employee of an ‘elite’ Australian university, and I have written before on the very low levels of education enforced by the institution, the cynical discourse around it, and the emphasis on immediate profit and financial growth above all else.

But, here Marxy:

Graduating at the top [of an elite Japanese university], however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.

I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t [emphasis Jana’s].

[…] I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. […] There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio).

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Apprenticeships: Addendum #1

But the reason why I have been intrigued by apprenticeships as a model of teaching, is that it seemingly affirms, but really essentially undermines, the kind of insane capitalism that is being enforced around us today.

It seems clear to me that the satisfaction in a job well done is one of the very few things that give any sort of meaning to life; that such a satisfaction comes only after exhaustive training; and that a society which does not valorise craft at any point is in some way failing to maintain the very nails and hinges that hold it together. This is not exactly a lone and loony position: Richard Sennett appraised the craftsman in 2009, in a beautiful and important book. It is also increasingly clear to me that Australia valorises exactly the opposite: the job done-just-enough. This is a worldview I see among academics just as much as among plumbers, and it is extraordinarily resilient to critique.

Apprenticeships are primarily a mode of teaching, an almost-one-on-one tuition that, as the Monocle video reveals, depends on touch, on hearing, and cannot be easily abstracted. It is exactly the sort of teaching that, in societies such as Australian, have been just about eradicated, and replaced with large-scale, standardised, detailless, bulk teaching. Two people that have considered this process most finely are Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism and Konrad Liessmann in The Theory of Uneducation (sadly not translated into English yet).

Mark Fisher writes about how economic pronciples of profitability and efficiency are blindly applied to public services (specifically, education), how the processes of application are deeply irrational, and the results poor:

JF: Drawing from your experience working in the public sector as a lecturer, you write about “business ontology” – a pervasive belief that market criteria by which corporations judge success (profit, debt, growth, etc) are what really matter and would benefit any and all institutions. Thus overpaid managers have been integrated into what remains of the public sector (e.g., health care, education), creating dismal “anti-productive” bureaucracies at odds with the original social purposes of these institutions. Have I got that about right?

MF: Yes, although I think it’s important to make a distinction between markets and business here. It’s often not very easy to marketise public services. So what we have instead is pseudo-marketization, a series of measures designed to simulate the so-called market, and these typically involve bureaucracy: targets, league tables, spurious quantification, the whole battery of surveillance and self-surveillance that goes with ‘continuous professional development.’

The superiority of the ‘market’ over public services was supposed to be that it minimised bureaucracy, but one of the perverse effects of pseudo-marketisation is that it massively increases the amount of bureaucratic labour that workers in public services are subject to and required to do. However, it’s crucial that we don’t accept any of this on its own terms. These measures have nothing to do with their ostensible goal of ‘increasing efficiency’, but they achieve very well their unofficial aims of putting workers into a permanent state of anxiety and normalising the near-total control of culture by business.

I use the term ‘ontology’ because what’s been constructed is a world in which only business values and practices are held to count. One effect of this is to make public service workers think that they are lucky to have a job at all. They only have their ‘unproductive’ jobs because of the generosity and hard work of those in the private sector who do the ‘real work’. This was absurd enough before the bank bail-outs. It’s utterly insane now.

Konrad Liessmann, on the other hand, proposes the concept of ‘industrialization of knowledge’. For Liessmann, all the talk about ‘societies of knowledge’ and ‘knowledge economies’ just hides the fact that, instead, we are industrialising our knowledge production. When you google ‘industrialization of education’, you will get millions of hair-raising entries that genuinely extol the benefits of education in bulk, the lower costs, the savings, etc. However, Liessmann defines knowledge not as information, but, in the long European humanist tradition, as information supplied with meaning.

Instead, Liessmann sees contemporary education (from primary to tertiary) as applying all aspects of the industrial production process:

  • division of complex tasks into a long series of very simple tasks that can be performed by untrained employees (so that the course is designed by person A, subject outline by person B, teaching done by person C, but assessment by person D – and only person A might be well paid)
  • standardisation of procedure (national curricula, multiple-choice exams, point-based merit system that equalizes a medical-science article and a literary essay)
  • high concentration of producers (mega-universities) and
  • standardised mass products (generic subjects teaching ‘design process’ or ‘theory’, recombinable into courses, as opposed to tailor-made degrees).

In this context, the most interesting thing about the ‘Polish plumber syndrome’ is that it reveals the structural inefficiency of a supposedly rational, efficiency-driven model of education such as the one above. Apprenticeships, for all their kleinbűrgerlich associations, are models of inefficient learning by all of these standards. And yet they clearly create much better plumbers, so much that people will pay more and write newspaper articles about it, too.

And more generally, the year 2011 may be the year in which many a ‘rational’ approach has been finally unmasked as structurally completely not. From our banking to our plumbing…


Kushner/Walters: ‘I think, therefore I am not a drama student’

via Chris Wilkinson on the Guardian theatre blog: Scott Walters posted the text of a lecture he delivered to theatre students, a lecture on Tony Kushner, the sorry state of the education they’re receiving, and how undergraduate art majors should be abolished. His (and Kushner’s) words resonate with me so much that I am not only linking to the post, but reporting it word by word here.

If you remember, I was once accused of not having any right to write about theatre because I had studied geography – and I found that arrow missing the target so much that I never bothered rebutting. Oh yes, I had studied theatre! I had studied drama extensively in my general Croatian education, reading Beckett and Brecht and Shakespeare and not learning anything about theatre; but also, more importantly, I had studied philosophy and history and literature and geography and sociology and psychology there. And then, at Melbourne University, I did a number of theatre subjects and passed with flying colours, but I didn’t think getting a major was a worthwhile pursuit. Why? Because theatre studies were populated with students who didn’t seem to have two working brain cells to rub together: students who barely read even the plays we were required to, who had not even the minimal knowledge necessary to put those plays in (socio-culturo-historical-psychological) context. I remember (I will never forget) a student trying to answer a question about the political context of Mother Courage:

“Well… it was written in 1930… so that was after World War II…

Or, reading Hedda Gabler and finding out that theatre students were not able to name social classes, as in: aristocracy, clergy, working, and so forth. Not now, let alone in the 19th-century Kristiania. I was so dismayed by that conversation, I who had been reading performance scholarship just to catch up on all I might had missed by not studying theatre in my early undergraduate years, that I never bothered to major in theatre. I would argue, instead, that my education in geography and urban planning has probably equipped me better for writing about theatre. Because it has, at least, kept my brain cells alive.

But, with no further ado, here is Scott Walters’s lecture (follow the link to leave comments directly):


Lecture on Tony Kushner

This is a lecture I will be delivering in one of my classes today

I’ve gotten to thinking lately about this class. To me, our discussions seem sort of superficial — l ike we’re not really engaged in any decent way with the material. And I think it’s my fault: Somehow, the questions I am asking, or the attitude I am bringing to class, is not asking you to dig in and find the really interesting stuff.

This bothers me because I have a very strong sense of what plays are for: that we, as human beings, create stories not simply to “kill time,” but as a way of making our ideas about life more easily remembered. So while we can laugh and joke about, say, Phaedra’s mother having sex with the bull, the underlying message is about uncontrolled passion. It is trying to explain how people seem to “lose their mind” when they are suddenly obsessed with a person or an idea.

Playwrights only write plays about things that are on the minds of the audience. If nobody was struggling with passion versus social duty, then the story wouldn’t be compelling. So this tells us about the French society. It is the same issue being wrestled with in The Cid. And, in a different way, it is the same issue being wrestled with in The Misanthrope. It is Aristotle’s question “how are we to live?”

If you are a Jansenist, as Racine once was; if you are a Jansenist who abandoned your religion for the theatre; if you are a Jansenist who has many affairs, especially with women in the theatre; If you are a Jansenist who gives the same play to Moliere and his competition; if you are a Jansenist who, in order to get back to a respectable life, may have poisoned your mistress… Then suddenly Pahedra isn’t just an academic exercise, it is the story of your life! .The desire for an inappropriate partner. How do you DEAL with that? You WANT to do the right thing. but you don’t seem to be able to control yourself.

There’s a book by Jonathan Haidt, a U of VA psychologist, called The Happiness Hypothesis. In it, Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small compared to the Elephant. Any time the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.

The fact that this theme – the struggle between the Rider and the Elephant – is happening in a society completely committed to the dominance of the Rider, to the dominance of Reason, is no accident. These are serious questions: how can I control this Elephant???

As I got to thinking about this, I was reminded of a lecture I gave a couple of times when I was angry at my students. Now, I’m not in the least bit angry with this class, so I haven’t been tempted to deliver this tirade to you. But as I read my notes, I thought: this is good stuff – this is stuff that you guys ought to hear! And truth be told, when I delivered these lectures in the past when I was angry at the students, it was hard for them to hear what I was saying because it sounded like I was just yelling at them. Sort of like that Far Side cartoon of a pet owner yelling at his dog in one box, and what the dog hears in the other: “blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger.” So I decided that you should hear this lecture, and hear it at a time when you aren’t in trouble! hope you’ll be able to hear the message, because it is something I am passionate about. And I hope you will have questions or comments for me afterwards. Ready?


I was angry with you Monday.Partly that was the onset of a migraine, but mainly it was frustration at your lack of interest: how will you keep other people interested in your work if you are so little interested in it yourself? And also your lack of respect – not of me, but of the art form that you want to be a part of. And I was angry at my own inability to communicate the reason why that respect, and why enormous effort and knowledge and wisdom, is necessary.

Monday before class I was reading playwright Tony Kushner’s impassioned speech to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education that was published under the title “A Modest Proposal” in the January 1998 American Theatre. How many of you have ever read American Theatre? How many of you have ever read an issue cover to cover, not just an article or two? Well, in “A Modest Proposal,” Kushner stands in front of thousands of college theatre teachers from across the United States in 1997 – I was there to hear it — and says that he thinks that all undergraduate arts majors should be eliminated, and instead students should receive a liberal arts education. I want to read a large chunk of this speech to you, because Tony Kushner is one of the most interesting artists we have today, and because what he wrote connects to why I was angry – in fact, may have caused why I was angry.

Kushner says:

ENTIRELY TOO MUCH TIME HAS passed without sounding my keynote: We should abolish all undergraduate art majors. I travel around the country doing lectures–after tonight I expect the invitations to dry up–and I am generally tremendously impressed with the students I meet and talk with, and generally unimpressed with what they know, and among these impressive and impressively undereducated students the worst, I am sorry to say, are the arts majors. And it isn’t simply that they seem remarkably non-conversant with the pillars of Western thought, with the political struggles of the day, with what has been written up in the morning’s paper–these arts majors know shockingly little about the arts. Forget literature. How many theater majors do you know who could tell you, at the drop of a hat, which plays are by Aeschylus, which by Sophocles and which by Euripides? Or the dates of any of those writers? How many undergraduate playwriting majors, for instance, know even a single sentence of ancient Greek, just to have the sound of it in their ears and the feel of it in their mouths? How many really know what iambic pentameter is? How about alexandrines? How about who wrote what in alexandrines? How many know the names of a single Chinese playwright, or play? Or of more than one or two African playwrights? How many have read Heiner Miller? Suzan-Lori Parks? How many have read more than one play by either of these writers? How many have never heard of them? How many know who Lessing was, or why we should care? How many have read, I mean really read and absorbed, The Poetics? The Short Organum?
And even if your students can tell you what iambic pentameter is and can tell you why anyone who ever sets foot on any stage in the known universe should know the answer to that and should be able to scan a line of pentameter in their sleep, how many think that “materialism” means that you own too many clothes, and “idealism” means that you volunteer to work in a soup kitchen? And why should we care? When I first started teaching at NYU, I also did a class at Columbia College, and none of my students, graduate or undergraduate (and almost all the graduate students were undergraduate arts majors–and for the past 10 years Columbia has had undergraduate arts majors), none of them, at NYU or Columbia, knew what I might mean by the idealism/materialism split in Western thought. I was so alarmed that I called a philosophy teacher friend of mine to ask her if something had happened while I was off in rehearsal, if the idealism/materialism split had become passe. She responded that it had been deconstructed, of course, but it’s still useful, especially for any sort of political philosophy. By not having even a nodding acquaintance with the tradition I refer to, I submit that my students are incapable of really understanding anything written for the stage in the West, and for that matter in much of the rest of the world, just as they are incapable of reading Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kristeva, Judith Butler and a huge amount of literature and poetry. They have, in essence, been excluded from some of the best their civilization has produced, and are terribly susceptible, I would submit, to the worst it has to offer.
WHAT I WOULD HOPE YOU MIGHT consider doing is tricking your undergraduate arts major students. Let them think they’ve arrived for vocational training and then pull a switcheroo. Instead of doing improv rehearsals, make them read The Death of Ivan Illych and find some reason why this was necessary in learning improv. They’re gullible and adoring; they’ll believe you. And then at least you’ll know that when you die and go to the judgment seat you can say “But I made 20 kids read Tolstoy!” and this, I believe, will count much to your credit. And if you are anything like me, you’ll need all the credits you can cadge together.


Education, as opposed to training, I think, addresses not what you do, or will do, or will be able to do in the world. Education addresses who you are, or will be, or will be able to be. In your early years the processes of education and of training go hand in hand and are mostly indistinguishable. Practical, useful knowledge and the burgeoning of the imagination and the sowing of the seedbeds of moral integrity, communal responsibility and individual courage and daring all transpire more or less simultaneously in the very young, all can be learned by the stacking of blocks and the tying of shoelaces and the learning of multiplication tables and the successful manipulation of art supplies–and I’d better stop before I turn into Robert Fulghum. I think you know what I’m saying. After kindergarten, with the commencement of one’s formal education, following grade school and up until one has reached young adulthood (which in my book starts at 21 years of age, or thereabouts): In the grand dialectic of life, in the dialectic between thought and action, one’s formal education ought to speak more to the thesis, thought, than to its antithesis, action.
I THINK THIS IS SO BECAUSE I have so many women friends who have just given birth and they tell me it really, really hurts to have to squeeze that huge head with its tremendous brain through the birth canal, and I believe them, and it seems to me all that suffering shouldn’t be for naught. If my friends are going to go through such misery to introduce new homo sapienses into the world, someone ought to see to it that these newcomers earn their fancy binomial nomenclature and become as sapient as possible. Someone ought to make sure their massive craniums are crammed as full as possible, otherwise I suggest the purchasing of household pets as a more pleasant alternative to seven hours of labor or a c-section. I think we should make sure these big-headed hominids become, as a result of being brilliantly educated, as deeply confused, conflicted, complicated, contrary, contemplative and circumspect as only years and years of sustained thought can make them.


I was reading this essay before class, and I was beating myself up over the simple-minded vocationalism of this class, where I teach you a few measly techniques for taking apart plays. And I got here and started asking questions, and it became instantly clear that many of you hadn’t even bothered to read the damn chapter. To hell with Aristotle, Brecht, Hegel, Marx, and Kristeva – you didn’t even want to read seven lousy pages of Walters and Pritner.

And then when I took you over to the library, most of you wandered around aimlessly because – oh my God! — there were other people on the computers. Standing there amidst almost a million books, most of you sat around waiting for a turn to use the computers. Why didn’t you browse? Why didn’t you know, through repeated use, exactly where you could find books about August Wilson or theatre criticism? And then some of you told me, with a mixture of bewilderment and pride, that you hadn’t been in the library for a long time, or that you didn’t like to come to the library, or you grumpily told me that you already knew how to use the library. Then why aren’t you reading? Why aren’t you cramming your head full of knowledge – all kinds of knowledge: history, philosophy, art, music, political science, feminist criticism. Do you think that what you know right now is enough to justify allowing you to use, even for one second, one of the most powerful tools known to humanity: a theatre? What makes you think that you have anything worth saying to anybody else

In one of my gen ed classes, I asked the students if I offered them a diploma for which they wouldn’t have to come to class, would they take it? Half of the students said yes. Explain that to me. Explain why anybody is so damned anxious to become an unthinking cog in the capitalist machinery that they would willingly give up their one chance to actually learn something that might make the world a more interesting place in which to live. Why are they so proud of their ignorance?

I can’t answer these questions. All I can do is say, loudly and with all the passion I can muster, that if you want to be an artist, if you want to be allowed to play with the powerful tool of the theatre, then you damn well better have something interesting to say. I don’t care how many good performances or effective designs your create while you are here, as long as you can’t think in any but the most superficial way, I have failed. As long as you don’t regularly go to the library and check out books just because you are curious, I have failed. As long as you would rather play video games than learn something that might illuminate a little corner of the world to you, I have failed. And I hate failing, because when I fail, it means YOU have failed, and the theatre will continue to be a wasteland of musicals made from movies and TV shows, and plays that are the equivalent of a post-meal belch.

I agree with Kushner: all undergraduate arts majors should be abolished, if by undergraduate arts majors we mean vocational training. On Friday, we will have a departmental post-mortem to discuss our most recent production, and what is the question that is most on everybody’s mind? Was it a good show? Did we do a good job? Did we think the set “worked”? Did we believe the acting? But nobody is going to talk about what the play said, and whether we actually believe what it said. Nobody is going to talk about how that message applies to us, and whether it is something we should take seriously. Nobody is going to talk about whether our community needed to see this play.

Because we don’t care. All we care about is how many butts are in the seats, and whether they applaud at the end. The arts, including literature, including the teaching of the arts in elementary and secondary school, are suffering because the artists and teachers don’t think anymore, and they don’t ask their students to think anymore.

If you want evidence of the vapidity of the world of theatre and film, watch Inside the Actors Studio any week it is on. The actors are charming, they are well meaning, and they can sometimes talk about their own work a little bit, but most of them have no ability to place their work within a context, to explain why their work is important to the society in which we live, to refer to other important works of art. And just what the hell do Jennifer Lopez, Ben Affleck, and Jude Law have to say about acting that we need to hear, much less about the arts? And if you need more evidence of the vacuousness of this show, think about the resounding idiocy of the portentous host’s, James Lipton’s, final questions

+ What is your favorite word?
+ What is your least favorite word?
+ What turns you on?
+ What turns you off?
+ What sound do you love?
+ What sound do you hate?
+ What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
+ What profession would you like not to participate in?
+ If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

These are narcissistic parlor games that any idiot can play. How can we go in front of a Congress that is filled with philistine idiots who want to cut arts funding and make a case for our importance when what we do is so insipid and shallow that we can’t defend it?

Now is the time for you to engage with ideas, to learn to think, and to actually DO some thinking and some talking and some arguing. You can’t say, after seeing a play by Samuel Beckett, one of the most important playwrights of the 20th century, “Well, wasn’t THAT uplifting.” You should be struck down by a bolt of artistic lightning from the sky for saying that. You can’t sit there like a petulant teenager pouting about having to be in by midnight. This is your education – do you really think you have nothing left to learn? You can’t sit there without making an attempt to think, to feel.

Because if you want to be a major in drama or in literature, you need to care. It isn’t that you have to like Beckett or Pirandello or O’Neill or Ibsen. It is that you have to open up your mind, open up your heart, open up your gut. You have to OPEN UP. And THINK about it – what it means, why it is in this anthology, what it is saying and how it applies to your life. And you have to do that not just in this class, but in all your other classes: in Humanities, in Political Science, in Biology, in Sociology. So that when you do a play, write a novel, teach a student, raise a child – you have something profound to contribute, something that gives you the right to read that book, do that play, teach that student, raise that child.

W. H Auden once said that “A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.” You must become worthy of reading a great play. You must bring something to the table.

In the play Look Back in Anger – the play that started the revolution in the English theatre in 1956 – the playwright John Osborne has his angry young protagonist cry “Oh heavens how I long for a little ordinary human enthusiasm. Just enthusiasm – that’s all. I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah! I’m alive! I’ve an idea.” Me too.Yes, you are tired – we are all tired. But I have news for you: this is as rested as you will ever get. Once you get out of here and are working a job to put food in your mouth and a roof over your head, and you’re trying to create art in your spare time, you will be much more tired than this. And that is what it is to be an adult. How will you keep your imagination alive? How will you keep yourself inspired? How will you keep yourself creative? And how will you justify the effort that it takes to do that unless you have a reason for being an artist, a purpose for doing a play or writing a novel, a reason for being???

And so I ask you to start now, to start today. Show a little ordinary enthusiasm. Open up. THINK. ARGUE. QUESTION. If you feel angry about what I have said, ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. If you agree with what I’ve said ARGUE QUESTION – THINK. Form your own ideas, but form them within some context and with some rigor. Tony Kushner is right: you are a big-headed hominid that caused your mother a lot of pain trying to pass that huge cranium out – you owe it to her to use that brain thoroughly and completely.

With what time is left, I want to do two things: I want you to question me, argue with me, think with me about some of the things I said, and Kushner said; and then I want you to question each other, argue with each other, think with each other – in this class, or outside of class when we run out of time.


Three perhaps not-so-obvious points on ‘Pornography’ (the play, not the genre)

I do need to preface this comment by noting I am writing it from behind the opaque screen of a 38°C fever, and that I saw Pornography as the swine flu was comfortably settling in. It was, however, a remarkable theatrical event, for many non-obvious reasons.

1st non-obvious reason: demonstrating that an artists’ festival is not a punters’ festival
Pornography was the first MIAF 09 show to really polarise the audience. You wouldn’t know this from the mainstream press, of course. The artists and the theatre-makers hated it with a passion, calling it trite, facile, lazy, not trying hard enough, and a Brett Sheehy show. All for a reason. Kristy Edmunds has worked very hard on turning MIAF into an artsts’ festival, and artists come to MIAF expecting to see courageous, bold and innovative developments of their art shown, demonstrated. You could trace the reverberations of particular acts in the local performance for years after: Jerome Bel in Attract/Repel, Societas Raffaello Sanzio in glimpses, Forced Entertainment across the board.

As is becoming clear, that’s not Brett Sheehy’s idea of a festival. Pornography is not theatre-maker’s theatre. It’s people’s theatre. In that respect, the equivalent of last year’s Romeo & Juliet (and therefore likely to win the people’s vote this year.) To every outraged theatre-maker in the audience there were at least two exhilarated punters from the eastern suburbs, clapping themselves numb. Again, it would be easy to snark at the theatre-illiterate plebs, but that’s not what’s going on here. In this year’s festival, Pornography features as the prime example of well-made theatre: disciplined, taut, contained, focused and effective. While it is true that it breaks absolutely no new ground, formally, narratively or conceptually, therefore leaving the part of the audience that shows up with notepads and pens in a state of dismayed disappointment, it is undeniably a very well realised theatre piece.

The only complaint I have heard from the other side of the barricades, which we may term The Hawthorn Side (with a tinge of irony), has been linguistic: why has it been done in German? We would have preferred it in English. Why not bring an English production?

2nd non-obvious reason: elucidating arcane questions of translation in theatre
Let’s revisit the pedigree of Pornography: a play by Simon Stephens on the subject of the London bombings of 2005, it was certainly written in English, and there is certainly a three-way translation going on in having it performed in German and re-translated into English via surtitles on three sides of the stage, but no one seems aware that the play was commissioned by that same Hamburg Schauspielhaus, which also, naturally, gave it its first production. The question of authenticity is turned upside down if you hear Stephens himself:

It couldn’t, says Stephens, have been written for the British stage. For a start, the subject was too raw: “It was so soon after the event. I would have felt guilty about fictionalising something very real. But writing for a German theatre freed me up.” It also allowed Stephens – who usually tells heartfelt, formally conventional stories – to experiment. Nübling is a characteristically German director: “I believe in theatre being the art of images,” he says, “not only the art of texts.” And so, says Stephens, “if I had written a play with a unified narrative, cogent characters and a three-act structure, he’d have fucked it up anyway.” None of the dialogue is attributed to any particular character – it’s up to the director who says what.

There’s a whole set of explanations for why Schauspielhaus Hamburg would do so: first, German theatre is director-oriented (or production-oriented, if you so wish), and is interested in seeing what different directors do to the same texts. While English theatre is terminally text-focused, always trying to find newer and fresher plays and voices, most European theatre will revisit plays and playwrights with great frequency, since it’s the particular take on the material that is really what makes theatre. This is why a non-emerging (or non-star) playwright, so to speak, could be held in such interest. (The contrast with Abbey Theatre’s Irish production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus is striking: the production adds so little to the extraordinary text that it’s hard to see it as anything other than words on stage, and hard to imagine why seeing another production of the same kind would be a significantly different experience.)

Secondly, with about 150 publicly funded theatres presenting around 5800 productions a year (of which about 360 world premieres), German theatre industry is a big market constantly looking for new material. The question of why Germans would be interested in a London story strikes me as odd, presupposing a cultural insularity that just isn’t there in Germany. After all, I don’t walk the streets of Melbourne (as I well could) wondering why Royal Shakespeare Company would be interested in such quintessentially Slavic stories as Uncle Vanya, do I?

The translation (of words, bodies and theatre into German) here reminds us, simply, of the process of imperfect translation that always already occurs in the theatre, which is metonymical and metaphorical in its core, which always traces real world on the sides of a black box, outdoors into indoors, past era and foreign countries into locals, mismatching ages, accents, general demeanour. Since theatre, unlike cinema, cannot ever vaguely pretend to be showing unadorned, unadulterated reality, than certainly this imperfect translation becomes one of its main charms? Brueghel’s imposing Tower of Babel, the vast backdrop to the Hamburg Pornography, is one such imperfect translation of an idea: the multicultural confusion of languages and intents, causing the failure of a grand idea (or is it just vain and presumptuous?) is as good a metaphor of the London Olympics/bombings as it is reductive and silly; but certainly it takes an outside eye to draw that parallel in such simple terms?

3rd non-obvious reason: proving Peter Craven wrong
Pornography is a production for Hamburg’s Schauspielhaus, the equivalent of MTC or STC: big, well-funded public theatre with a subscriber base, production exchange/touring arrangements with other such theatres, a core ensemble of 20-40 actors, an opera and possibly a corps de ballet. This is not, in other words, a work of a lone genius in a cave: it is a big-balled production, bringing to the citoyens of Hamburg new hot writing, in style. The equivalent of the Pamela Rabe’s God of Carnage; Benedict Andrews’s The City; or the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. It demonstrates very well what the standard good mainstream theatre production in Europe looks like, and in our city, chronically starved of decent mainstream, it is no wonder that the audience was so pleased. If half of all theatre in Australia looked like that, we would have nothing to complain about.

The whinging artists about town should probably consider that all successful formal experimentation relies on an educated audience. Pornography breaks no new formal ground, true, but it revisits the existing playing space for theatre with crisp, elegant matter-of-factness, demonstrating the poetic advantages of non-naturalism, anti-realism, metaphor, symbolism, metonymy, and so forth, to anyone with a working set of eyes. It must have done more for the form than the rest of the mainstream fare together, this year in Melbourne, and it has done so by explicitly shitting on Peter Craven’s recent argument for what-is-wrong-in-the-Australian-theatre. So explicitly, in fact, that we can trace it point-by-point.

Straight? NO. Classical? NO. “Showed what theatre could do rather than what could be done with the theatre”? NO. Naturalistic and muted? NO. “Delivered, on the note, without distortion”? NO ( Nübling had changed the text, rearranged the order of the episodes, and plastered a whole Babel at the back of the stage, hey). Indeed, it had many more of the qualities that for Craven exemplify theatre “too narcissistic to grow up”. Ugly-ugly aestheticism? JUST ABOUT. “Demolition site with its smeared body fluids and blood spitting”? Sounds correct. “Cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings”? Can I mention that Tower of Babel again?

The paradox is, of course, that Pornography, with its invisible light switches, its puzzle symbolising the woes of multiculture, its Coldplay singalongs, its classroom stage space standing indifferently for houses, offices, school yards, and swanky restaurants and THEREFORE blatantly middle-fingering naturalism, has immense and palpable appeal to the same middle-of-the-road taste Craven is speaking from. It is no wonder whatsoever Craven himself reviews the production so glowingly; and yet the workings of this production seem completely lost on him, working in a frenzy to prove that it is not because, but despite, the anti-realism that Pornography is such a lovely night at the theatre.

All of which strikes me as deeply ideological, but also really, really funny.

Pornography. Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Written by Simon Stephens. Director Sebastian Nübling. Set Designer Muriel Gerstner. Assistant Set Designer Jean-Marc Desbonnets. Costume Marion Münch. Music Lars Wittershagen. Lighting Roland Edrich. Dramaturgy Nicola Bramkamp & Regina Guhl. Cast Marion Breckwoldt, Katja Danowski, Juliane Koren, Hanns Jörg Krumpholz, Jana Schulz, Daniel Wahl, Samuel Weiss & Martin Wißner. The Arts Centre, Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 15-18.

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Note on Unimelb

It is a bit of a public secret, acknowledged but unspoken, that if you are interested in learning, universities are, at the moment, possibly the worst places to go. From my dual position as the subject and object of the tertiary system (the inflictor and the sufferer of education), it seems reasonable to say that universities, right now, are in a position not dissimilar to that of newspapers. Going downhill fast. While the standards of what’s reasonably going on are deteriorating year by year (if not day by day), things will need to get much worse before any concern builds up. Before any impetus for improvement can build up. Before, even, anyone can be made to care.

Some very reasonable assumptions about what the teaching and learning process are supposed to entail seem to have gone out the window. For example: I remember subjects that knew they were teaching things from A to F. It was clear at which point the students were expected to know A, what A comprised of, at what point we moved to B and at what point B was mastered, and so forth. Currently, nobody knows what their students know at any given moment. A friend, who shall remain nameless, is finding out that her course in Postmodern Literature has failed to teach her students anything. “They don’t seem to have read anything past Harry Potter,” she complained the other day. “and here they are grappling with theory that even confuses me. They should have done some 19th-century realism first. Then maybe modernism. Then this course would have a chance of making sense to them.” She is also finding out that they don’t have the basics of grammar down. “It’s hard to know what they’ve understood, because they’re so bad at expressing themselves.” With the end of semester, and piles of essays to go through, I don’t envy her.

On the other hand, as a student, I can understand their confusion. A subject that teaches you all you’re expected to know, and assesses what it has taught, is so rare that when you find one, you praise it widely and recommend profusely. I still remember a subject I took three years ago: at the end of Week 4, we had to hand in an essay comparing the similarities between the only two types of theory we had studied up to that point. The lecturer’s assessment of our writing comprised of telling us we had overlooked all sorts of prejudice shared. Yes, true, but these prejudices were only clear in the light of the theory we started studying in Week 5. Here it was, a basic failure of a subject to understand that A-B-C-D-E-F sequence from the paragraph above. Half the class flunked, in absolute terms. But of course, due to the need to mark every assessment on a bell curve, 10% were given high distinctions regardless.

Another problem is that the expectations placed on a student are completely murky. Since the lecturers seem afraid to check what their students know, and have only limited powers of teaching things that are beyond the scope of their subject (my friend has no time to spend teaching grammar, or modernism), everyone lives in a confused dread of the final assignment day. Some of this has to do with their education prior to tertiary, some to a complete dearth of sequential teaching, at least as far as humanities go (sciences don’t seem to be much better): whereas I remember having to do medieval history of Japan before anyone would let me get anywhere near its modern history, let alone its modern literature, right now one can skate from pornography in manga to greek tragedy, dipping in and out at pleasure. Or, conversely, one can spend three years regurgitating feminist readings of Hitchcock and, say, landscape painting. Thank God that professions like architecture have kept some sort of entrance barrier, otherwise our buildings would be getting built by people who can draw a window, but not a door.

However, after 12 weeks of tutorials, practicals or seminars in which nothing gets done, nobody is assessed, and no discussion ever develops (because students don’t read, don’t talk, and anyway don’t seem to be able to process much of what they’re bring taught), suddenly one is assessed in composition. The undergraduate essay must be the worst possible way of marking a student. Not only in the light of my friend’s complaints, but also because the expectations a student is responding to are often a complete quandary to them. They often don’t know what the subject was supposed to teach them (other than the flosculae of “thinking critically” and “expressing ideas in writing”), don’t know how much of it they’re supposed to have understood (considering that deadly lack of discussion, and/or feedback), and if they happen to know anything more than they were taught, if they were by any chance bored, they end up guessing blindly what knowledge they may be expected to show. If, however, they are still using the subject as a pretext for independent learning, they’re in deep shit by this point, because the sort of hunt for information that learning consists of is completely incompatible with the need to present one very simple idea in 2500 words (which is the upper limit these days, down from the retrospectively-quite-generous-4000 when I started my degree).

So, if you have understood one little crumb of the 12 weeks’ worth of teaching, you are in the best possible place for doing your composition. You can dig into your little nugget (just not too much). The student who understood everything, or nothing at all, or much but vaguely, is truly fucked.

It’s all fine, in a sense: we have replaced this outmoded learning thingy with a much more swish academic role-playing. The students write like they know what they’re talking about, like they know what they’re supposed to do, and the markers mark them like they’ve done better than they have. Nobody can be failed, and changing the parameters of a subject (let alone the teaching strategies) is next to impossible. At the end of each subject, 10% of essays are still proclaimed excellent.

I would love to see the return of the verbal exam. Not only is it the best possible way to assess how much a student know, it is also an extraordinary thing to study for. It forces the student to learn. It establishes a connection between the lecturer and his students that’s worth more than all the staff-to-student ratio statistics we are bombarded with. It would also have a very welcome side-effect of training students to verbally articulate their thoughts, which is a priceless life skill, and would doubtlessly make all those tutorial discussions actually happen. But everyone in the teaching will tell you: it’s too costly. This coming from a system that spends millions of dollars on buildings we don’t need, advertising that in no way benefits either the sector or the students, multiple computers per capita, and technology nobody knows how to operate.

It strikes me that the system is failing students in a very serious way. But I am also in a completely basic, primitive awe that the system still holds together, that it somehow continues to operate. I imagine it will eventually crash like the US of A. And that may just be a spectacle.

In any case, Theatre Studies is an exemplary case of a teaching department in which nobody knows either what’s getting taught, nor what’s being learnt. If you are interested in theatre, I strongly recommend doing anything, anything else.