Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grateful Dead Scholarship

I traveled to San Antonio for a popular culture conference last week, but the only sessions I saw were on the Grateful Dead--more than a dozen in all, plus extracurricular activities. We heard presentations from a wide variety of fields: philosophy, psychology, sociology, literary studies, business, and musicology. Extraordinary.

Nick Meriwether, who heads up the Grateful Dead archive at UC Santa Cruz, invited me to submit an abstract when I visited campus last year. I began with Warren Hinckle's 1967 Ramparts article on the hippies, then segued to the utopian impulses that I think help account for the Dead's success, then brought it back to Warren and Rolling Stone. I don't think anyone at the conference was surprised by my utopian stuff, but I suspect they were less familiar with the Ramparts back story.

But what makes such conferences successful are the informal exchanges during and between the presentations, and this conference was very productive in that department. I discovered that Jay Williams of Critical Inquiry had offered a similar analysis but with a bohemian (not utopian) focus last year. Helpful, especially when our conversations turned up many other points of contact.

Nick distributed Dead Studies, which included a transcript of Ralph Gleason's 1967 private communication with historian and musician Frank Kofsky. (The communication is from the Dead archive.) Gleason resigned from Ramparts after the Hinckle article appeared, and later that year he launched Rolling Stone with Jann Wenner. His communication discusses the San Francisco music scene and the differences between the hippies and politicos. He talks at some length about Bob Scheer, who was the managing editor at Ramparts and had almost captured the Democratic nomination in his East Bay congressional district the previous year. (Bob was also a friend of Bill Graham.) That communication was invaluable to me; it grounded my ideas in the firsthand, contemporary observations of a key player.

The musicologists at the conference were awesome. Among other things, they offered guided listenings to some classic Dead jams. And on top of everything else, the Grateful Dead scholars as a whole are a fun group. Not unprecedented in the annals of academia, but very welcome.

Update: John Swansburg of Slate posted a piece on the conference. It looks like he appreciated the possibilities here. I've never been a big believer in reading the comments section, but the presumptions in the batch I saw were striking. I caught several whiffs of what my dissertation director called an intellectual sin: contempt prior to investigation.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Earth Day: The One That Got Away

After the Ramparts book came out, I developed a list of high-profile ways that the magazine changed America, as per my subtitle. The best example is probably the Martin Luther King story; he came out against the Vietnam War for the first time after flipping through Ramparts at an airport. On the radio, you don't want to spend a lot of time on set-up or explanation, so that one's a keeper. Everyone gets it.

The one that got away was Earth Day. I didn't get this story into the book, but as Tim Redmond's piece reminds us, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a liberal Republican from Wisconsin, got the idea for a national teach-in on the environment after reading Ramparts on a flight from Santa Barbara to Oakland. The beaches of Santa Barbara had been soaked by a massive oil spill the year before, so the moment was right. The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970, and 20 million people participated.

The Ramparts editors couldn't quite accept the compliment. Their May 1970 cover showed the Isla Vista Bank of America in flames as a result of student anti-war protests. The caption declared that the incineration of the bank "may have done more for the environment than all the teach-ins put together." That one alienated even some longtime supporters.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Information Age!

As my little bio says, I teach California Culture at San Francisco State University, and I'm currently reading student essays. It's not as fun as it sounds, especially since the enrollment is sizable (about 70 students), I teach two other courses, and I have no teaching assistants or graders for any of them. In short, almost 2,000 pages of student writing per semester plus other prep, and you don't want to hear about the money.

But the purpose of this post is to report a shift in student norms when it comes to reading and writing. The unspoken assumption seems to be that books are yesterday's news, even in humanities classes. Everything you need is at your fingertips, so why read anything else?

The way this plays out in the essays is instructive. I typically ask students to come up with their own paper topics so they can decide what matters to them. Several chose to focus on Chester Himes's novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The protagonist's name is Bob Jones, but two of the essays I read yesterday called him William Clinton. Curious, I googled the book title with that name and found that the Wikipedia page for this novel does indeed list William Jefferson Clinton, our 42nd president, as the novel's hero. Which means that at least two students wrote entire essays about this book without reading or even consulting it.

I'm not in the mood to scold or draw sweeping generalizations from this little sample, but three things come immediately to mind. First, not everything reduces to its information value, and novels are an obvious reminder of this. The whole point is to enter an imaginary world and see what happens in it--and to you. No reading means no reading experience.

Second, attending a state university is like a trip to Yosemite. Both places are public resources that offer potentially rich experiences, but everyone has the right to a shallow one. Taking a humanities class and refusing to read any books--I can only imagine how glancingly these students regarded the books they DIDN'T write about--is a little like going to Yosemite and hanging out by the snack shack.

Third, of course, is the lesson provided by the gag itself. Someone thought it would be funny, I suppose, to place President Clinton's name in that slot, and Wikipedia's editors haven't corrected it yet. I'm sure they will, but there's a larger cultural issue here. Having decided to privilege information over imagination, we also neglect to check the quality of the information. This isn't a shot at Wikipedia, which I often use and have contributed to, but rather a comment on the bargain we've made as a culture.

When the emphasis falls on free, fast, and easy, we often get cheap. Lots of people I know understand this concept when it comes to food, but their digital utopianism is as unexamined as ever. Maybe we should all read You Are Not a Gadget, which considers this question in more depth. I think the author's name is Chester Alan Arthur. (I just used Wikipedia to check the correct spelling.)