Monday, May 26, 2008

Half-Nelson

Half-Nelson was featured in our afternoon Kino session about a week ago, and it prompted some of the following discussion, but first a brief synopsis for anyone not familiar with the premise: The film stars Ryan Gosling as an inner city teacher who befriends Drey, one of his students (played by Shareeka Epps). Gosling is also the school's girl's basketball coach, an aspiring author, and drug addict. In fact, the moment of "befriending" occurs when Gosling's student catches him smoking crack in the locker room. It turns out that the girl, who's father is gone and mother works all the time, actually knows Gosling's connection, who was responsible for Drey's brother being jailed and is now taking an active interest in the welfare of the family.

Having known many teachers through our friendship with Sean Marchetto, over at www.explodingbeakers.blogspot.com , we found Gosling's portrayl of a young, idealistic, teacher quite true-to-life, despite his seemingly fantastical crack-habit (which we are afraid to wonder just how pervasive such things might be), in a way that is very akin to Richard Burton in Look Back In Anger, as suggested by Lucy, from the knitting site www.goodgrieflucy.blogspot.com.

1. Gosling, with his focus on Hegelian dialectics and their Marxist connotations, reveals himself in as a believer in the possibility for social change. This seems reinforced by his parents, aging hippies, who constantly remind him of their efforts to change the system. As we said, we know many contemporaries who found themselves questioning the system in the early 1990s and rather than going for more overt politcal agitation, ended up in the teaching profession as a way to affect change.

2. However, the school system demonstrates that it is not as open to immediate change as one might think. To begin with, there is the official curriculum, which is a legally binding document and a teacher who does not follow and fulfill the curriculum can face official sanctions. Second, the school is an institution with a life of its own, one that seeks to subsume it's constituent parts. Many of Gosling's co-workers have long since abandoned their outward activist stance, and have settled into something of a humdrum ease.

3. The days are long. When Gosling is done teaching, we see him coaching girl's basketball. A coffee-break conversation with a co-worker leads to the revelation that Gosling is a long way from his dreams of teaching by day, and working on his novel by night. As a way of consoling him, his colleague offers, "There's always summer".

4. One of the initial comments on Gosling's characters' drug use associated it with perhaps his frustration at his lack of writing prowess. The image of the author or artist who needs a little "help" with "inspiration" is fairly typical and so the thought was that day-to-day teaching was so draining that Gosling turned to drugs to perhaps fire himself up for writing. However, we soon learn that Gosling's character has a history with drugs, leading to the comparisons with Burton's self-destructive angry young man from the 1950s. Again, we can infer from Gosling's classroom talk that he does not believe that political change is possible without a social change occurring first, a process that can take decades. Later in the movie he makes the statement to the effect that "A man acting alone is nothing", which leaves him in a rather frustrating position, that of a man acting alone in front of classroom trying to deal with social forces much larger than himself, and knowing full well the futility of his actions. No wonder he's on drugs.

Of course, there's a huge effort to redeem himself and demonstrate what one man can do acting alone in his relationship with Drey that provides the bulk of movie's plot. We chose not to comment on that aspect, as it is covered in most reviews of the movie, but rather to focus on an aspect of teaching that we don't usually see.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Cognitive Surplus

This just floated our way via the web, and gives us a different spin on or theories of the consumption of university education. Below, Clay Shirky is speaking of television watching as a way of dealing with a "cognitive surplus", or as he admits, the surplus of time that post-WWII workers experienced when they were finished working for the day. You can almost hear Adorno whispering in the background . . .