pk School Stories: Teaching
Why You Can’t Get There From Here
When the Colby College English Chairman, Mark Benbow, hired me, he emphasized that he was doing everything he could to consider my finishing my Ph.D.: I would teach only three courses the first semester, just four the second. Three courses meant nine hours a week teaching time. Colby, down in Maine you realize, closes its regular classes for the snowy month of January. The student body spends the month on projects. The college goes to half-faculty for supervision, taking turns. I would get January the first year off. If I stayed only the one year, I’d remain ahead by that month. Nine hours a week, January off. There was one thing though: every member of the faculty had to be on at least one committee: that was one thing he couldn’t get me out of. He gave me my choice. I only remember the choice I chose: bookstore committee. How burdensome that became had nothing to do with the hours: only one one-hour meeting was ever called. And I’ll never forget it.
At Columbia there was a Columbia Bookstore. I shopped there: for Christmas cards. Books I bought at any of the bookstores in the neighborhood. The Columbia Book Store carried all the assigned texts: so did the other bookstores in the neighborhood. The Columbia Book Store also had a few shelves of best sellers, a section of classics … I’m sure they had thousands of books in inventory. But the bookstores in the neighborhood had tens of thousands of books in inventory: and the proprietor instantly knew the location of every one. Other employees also tended to. The Columbia Bookstore in contrast was staffed by the future managers of K-Mart.
Elsewhere in my story directory I tell of at least one other visit to a college bookstore. It was an uphill battle to buy a good book. It was skating downhill however to buy a pennant, a beer mug, a stuffed toy … I will say one thing for the Columbia Bookstore: it was far and away the best college bookstore I’ve ever been in for longer than five minutes.
(Decades later I sold art to a bookstore at Harvard: the Coop: and that looked to be a fairly amazing enterprise. But I’m not sure that the Coop was “The Harvard Bookstore.”) (And by the way, I’m not at all sure how good a bookstore the Coop was: my experience with it was strictly on the end of the “pennants and Kewpie dolls.”)
As a member of the Colby Bookstore Committee I made a point of visiting the Colby Bookstore. (Apart from my official capacity there was no need. I just told the department secretary what books I’d be assigning and she passed the word to the bookstore’s ordering department.) I would say that, for books, the Colby Bookstore was perhaps a hair better than the elsewhere mentioned Mary Washington College Bookstore.
Wait. Something just occurred to me I have to jot before I forget the revelation: I opened this file to list some of the obvious things wrong with official college bookstores. But a key thing never occurred to me before this moment: the key to all that was wrong was the simple fact that there was a Colby College Bookstore Committee! If the great Salter’s bookstore on Broadway across from Columbia had been run by a Columbia Bookstore Committee instead of by Mr. Salter, maybe it too would have fallen short of excellence. (As an entering freshman I was convinced that Mr. Salter had to be one of the great scholars in the world. All my prejudices about what great scholars ought to be doing were violated by Mr. Salter climbing up on some ladder to get the fifteenth book on my list. Mr. Salter seemed to be familiar with every book mentioned to him: by me or by the “professor” he’d waited on just ahead of me. It wasn’t till second semester that I realized Mr. Salter may not have read a single one of the vast number of books he seemed to be intimate with.
Get the picture? Salter’s sold books: books, books, and only books. If you wanted a book, go to Salter’s. If Mr. Salter didn’t have it within a minutes reach, and the book was in print, he’d get it for you pronto. If he didn’t have it and it wasn’t in reach, he might still get it for you. No doubt he could look things up, no doubt he could write things down, but an amazing amount of what he needed to know to serve whoever walked in the door was in his head. Ah, that’s right over here. Ah, for that I just have to phone Jim at XYZ. For that other I just have to write Marla at MNO … Salter’s did a good business because it was located where lots of people who bought books passed by. For people who didn’t happen by, it was located a few doors from a subway stop. You could leave Canton or Berlin, get on a boat or a plane, get on a subway … and arrive at Salter’s. It looked messy (it looked chaotic) but was ordered (by Mr. Salter’s mind). Equally close to the same subway was the Columbia Bookstore. It looked ordered (it looked like it had been ordered by whoever did the windows at Macy’s), but it was in effect chaotic. The Salter’s of 1956 that I write of was a tiny place. Mr. Salter climbed to the dizzying ceiling and swung around the rafters like a monkey. There was no browsing. The books were vertical, and only he had access to the ladders. At the Columbia Bookstore you could eventually find any book in stock: once you had learned the system: just like in the stacks at the library. Fine if you’re a grad student; but the freshman does best letting Mr. Salter do the fetching. I’m reminded of the deli we shopped in when I was a kid: the deli owner did all the fetching. At the A&P, you had to learn the store and its system, then do everything yourself but check, total, take the money, and bag it.
The Columbia Bookstore was like the A&P, with this difference: in the A&P any clerk could tell you where the meat counter was or which aisle had the LeSeur peas. In the Bookstore, any clerk could show you the Kewpie dolls; ask for the selected Yeats and you could find it faster yourself: with your eyes shut.
I doubt that anyone deplaned from Honolulu to shop at Salter’s, but I’m more certain that no one deplaned from Honolulu to shop at the Columbia Bookstore: even if they wanted ashtrays with lions on them in volume. (Those ashtrays may have been made in Honolulu.)
OK. You recognize everything I’m saying, don’t you? I’m not going to try to quote or even paraphrase very closely what was said to open the meeting of the bookstore committee, Colby, 1967; I’ll just translate in language not normal to academics: The Colby Bookstore sucks. What can we do about it?
The premise was certainly correct. The question should be answerable: if the question were being asked honestly. But of course whoever was chairing the committee had been there before. He knew to save us from wasting our breath by swiftly sketching in the constraints.
The bookstore must be “free enterprise.
That is, whoever was granted the capitalist “monopoly,” had to be allowed monopolistic control.
The bookstore had to be allowed to try to make a profit.
The monopolist also had some constraints:
The bookstore had to offer some books
Namely, it had to make some effort to offer the books assigned by teachers. (Teachers were supposed to make some effort to assign books that were available. It does no good to assign inspection of the Rosetta Stone in Waterville Maine when the Rosetta Stone is in Paris: unless you’re also handing out visas, per diem, museum permissions …
Notice one constraint in particular:
The Colby College Bookstore was not allowed to relocate to Broadway and 116th, to Harvard Yard, to Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown …
And how about this one?
The Colby College Bookstore was not empowered to switch the student body with that at Yale.
In other words, the Colby College Bookstore had to offer books to a population that if they read books would not have gone to Colby: they’d be at Amherst, or at Hamilton, or at Colgate, at Smith, Bryn Mawr, or Vassar. They’d head for a loft in Paris or in SoHo …
Certainly the Colby student body bought the books they were assigned with fair reliability. Perhaps they read some plurality of those books while the books were in their possession. But in general the students did not tend to be book buyers. And books they did buy were more likely to be found at the drug store than in the Bookstore or in the library: Batman, Conan, James Bond … Valley of the Dolls.
Etc. I could go on. No doubt, so could you. Even if you didn’t arrive with this shtick, you see the pattern. So: to conclude: the opening message of the Bookstore Committee meeting was that the purpose assigned to the Bookstore Committee by fiat was, by similar fiat, not doable.
The Colby Bookstore sucks: and we must do nothing about it.
But also realize: this is Knatz.com. This is pk here. I knew that I would lose, helpless in the group, but damn it, I won’t lose, constrained within the group, without a wisecrack or two.
I no longer remember with certainly which of my several ideas I uttered aloud. I am sure of two. I said at least these:
Why doesn’t the Bookstore get in on the booming drug traffic?
Why doesn’t the Bookstore pimp for some of the coeds?
The first thing made clear upon one’s first ascending to faculty status in society’s ahem higher education system is that everyone knows what’s wrong — the key is: you mustn’t try to do anything to improve it!
Pot was almost as big at Colby as it was lots of other places by 1967-68 … Bard College was supposed to be the Little Red Whorehouse on the Hudson by the late 50s; by the late 60s nearly every college was a big red whorehouse. Except that if the girls went to Times Square to fuck left and right, they’d soon have been rounded up by pimps who’d have swiftly professionalized their amateur activity. Why in a capitalist society, where the bookstore has a license to profit, shouldn’t a businessman participate in the best businesses? The girls were giving away the booty (of course they mostly expected to catch a meal ticket out of it anyway: if they’d thought they’d catch the best meal ticket by keeping their legs crossed, the way their grandmothers had, they’d have done just that). And the flagrantly-for-profit boo-business was flagrantly for the profit of anybody but the college fuddy-duddies and their retarded bookstore.
I didn’t say or think this one at the time: but I should have. Why didn’t the College Bookstore offer ‘Vettes? There were several ‘Vettes owned by the student body. Any two of them might have generated more profit than all the textbooks put together.
Did I get a laugh?
Did anyone get the point of the satire?
I don’t believe that’s something anyone can say for sure one way or the other. But, in all the things I’ve ever said, in all my life (things other than Where’s the bathroom?) I don’t know that any part of it’s been understood by more than three people: even after decades of repetition.
2002 04 02 I launched this file just over a week ago. Now let me make sure that my main points have a point on them.
As my biographical narratives tell, I was coerced to attend school. I was coerced to take math. The teacher may not have been coerced to be a teacher, but she wanted to eat, wanted to have some measure of respect, teaching was “respectable,” teaching math was an extra degree respectable … But she didn’t know any math, had no love for or understanding of axioms, let alone of proof. A culture that really believed in math wouldn’t have let her near the children. A culture that really believed in freedom wouldn’t have corralled the children into a math pen.
A college that really wanted to foster book reading would have enticed book readers: then it would have appeared that they were doing their job. The book readers are a finite quantity; they’d already been enticed elsewhere: mostly by fakers, for fakers. So the college’s job was not to foster reading but to choreograph pretense. And there’s no better way to pretend than to form committees.
A kleptocracy needs citizens who can read printed instructions. A kleptocracy does not want citizens who freely think and freely shop for additional “ideas.” The role of education is to pretend to an interest in literature: so that the managers can follow printed instructions, supervising laborers also following printed instructions.
Napoleon’s lieutenants had to be able to read as well as write messages and carry or have messages carried to others who could read or write them. Industrial-scale farming needs written messages. Industrial-scale industry needs instruction followers. Traditional societies have a lifetime to teach the instructions. Industrial-scale anything needs to be able to change the messages hourly: like Nixon’s Whitehouse.
These days the NBA saturates NBC with ads showing David Robinson, Reggie Miller, and God help us, even Allen Iverson reading kiddie books to kids: the future instruction followers. Do mass media want to show Thoreau reading to pk? or pk reading Thoreau? how about pk reading Beckett? or Beckett reading to little kids? Do we really want the little kids reading Shakespeare or Homer when they’re bigger kids? What if they start reading Bruce Sterling? or Ken MacLeod? or Benjamin Tucker? What if they start reading Thoreau?
I’ll bet that no college bookstore with a lot of Kewpie dolls (and no Salter’s across the street) has a student body with more than 5% reading on their own and no more than 1% (if 1%) reading Shakespeare (or Bakunin).
And college bookstore committees are essential in this kleptocratic homeostasis: just as other committees are essential in every other reform enterprise where the real purpose of the committee is to emasculate all possibility of reform. The Vietnam years were full of committees studying how the war could be ended: so long as the war wasn’t ended: how the war could be ameliorated: so long as the war wasn’t ameliorated …
I don’t doubt that if I’d echoed the chairman: Yes, the bookstore sucks and Yes, we mustn’t do anything different. Yes, we must be business-like, so long as we don’t conduct a sensible business.
College and business are incompatible. Just as monasteries and business are incompatible. Monasteries must be sponsored. The librarians of tradition are and must be parasites. The rest of the culture must get the food, and feed some of it to selected parasites. If we want children to forget to gather their food so that they read the Bible instead, then somebody had better feed them: and keep feeding them.
If the society is sick, then it had better feed somebody to be unlike the rest of the society. Jesus was raised to know how to earn his bread by the rules of the society: he was a carpenter; but once he was ready to preach, he put the carpentering aside. (He became a parasite.) (He was supported by women!)
Well, it’s not the first time I’ve done it: I came back to make sure the points were pointed, started to, and then went free-associating again. I did bring the narrative around to where it fit the title: my original aim; but I don’t know how pointedly. But then you ought to be able to do a little work yourself toward your own salvation. See it:
We pay lip service to “literacy” but really only want obedience. Mostly, we get it. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that obedience is doomed.
Over the centuries the Laps, the last of the migratory nomads, castrated the wild bucks of their “wild” reindeer. Now the last wild herds are as dumb as cattle. In the industrial nations, the last wild citizens are likewise as dumb as cattle. When we hit the wall, who or what will lead us? Will Allen Iverson know which books to select for adult reading? Will reading really help us when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring arrives? the actual silent spring. What should we read while we die-off? (See DieOff.com?)
Keats? Revelation? Ah, how about Pentti Linkola?
scrap: I’ll have to come back and clean this up.
It should be freemen who hawk freedom. It should be readers who hawk reading.
And if they merely sell reading, then they should at least be familiar with the location of their wares: as Mr. Salter was.
The official bookstore at Columbia sold the idea of books; the commercial bookstore sold the actual books. No question which got more books sold.
Printed Instructions: Semiotic techniques have advanced sufficiently in our industrial society that the need for literacy is grossly overstated. Modern stop signs communicate “Stop” by a redundancy of ways. Neither the Eskimo nor the Japanese needs to be able to read “Coca-Cola” to recognize the Coke logo. Persons with no knowledge of the alphabet may still tremble when then see “USA” or “FBI” (or “IRS”).
I in contrast still suffer from the habit I developed in elephantine proportions as an undergraduate. In high school I’d had a book collection: a small book collection. By no means were all the books I’d read in it, but all the books I’d been given as a child and a few favorites — like collections of Damon Runyan and anthologies of science fiction — were. But in college, cursed again with rich friends, all of us English majors, we got into something that seemed competitive: pathologically so. Who had the biggest bookshelf? By the time we were juniors, Alan moved to a bigger apartment because his bookshelves spanned more than seventy-five feet. (Of course that’s not fair because Alan never returned his books to the library: his father would pay the bill eventually.) Alan got a scholarship to U Pa architecture based on his bookcase designs: cantilevered Nervi out of Corbu. My own got bigger and bigger. And of course we all moved every six months. And I’ve been thrown or driven out of place after place since. And we always had six floor walkups. And the older you get, the fewer friends you have to help carry stuff, and the less willing they are to carry whatever their number.
(Thank god for BookCrossing.com. From now on I’m going to register all books I don’t need constant reference to and just leave them, one at a time, on a park bench somewhere.) (Those I give away that I do need to reference don’t do me any good: I can’t find a thing in my friend’s shed where all my stuff is piled.)
Oh, and by the way, don’t for one second think that I’m suggesting that Colby was anything less than a not-quite-top drawer college. The vast majority of colleges are far, far worse.