Anna Joy Springer Author of The Vicious Red Relic, Love and The Birdwisher
A Conversation with Jasmine Stein
We spoke to Anna Joy Springer who directs the writing program at the University of California, San Diego about higher education, counter-culture in the writing world, teaching, empathy, the future of publishing and a few of her projects in the works.
Higher education (especially higher education in the arts) is not the most diverse of places. And if it is an institution that prides itself on diversity, it still tends to operate in a kind of collective voice. Do you think the way we are approaching higher education is changing, or do you think there is room to push it towards the possibility of change?
There have been lots of alternative education movements in the U.S. in the past couple hundred years. This is a nation of reformers. My own undergrad school was an alternative sort of University. From some of the people who used to work there, I hear it ran a little like a cult at times, but it really did hire and underpay the most phenomenal instructors and attract the weirdest, most brilliant students. It folded a few years ago, but it lasted over 30 years.
As far as public and more-established/ endowed private institutions, so much goes on behind the scenes at the upper administrative levels in higher education. If the school is public or private, it has different bosses it’s accountable to. For instance, I’m a public servant of the State of California, and the UC System is one part of the State’s operations. I’m not trying to dodge your question here. I think there’s a lot of carry-over from when unions in state jobs were strong that some of us in state education may benefit from today – this is really just a guess – but it seems to me like the sorts of transparency required by UCs in relation to hiring practices and all managerial and pedagogical approaches to what is called officially “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion” have been made possible by the activism of union organizers in the past as much as by non-union coalitions of students, staff, and faculty demanding change.
What you ask about the possibility of pushing higher education toward change is hard to answer without knowing what sort of change you mean. Is the university as an institution changing, after the internet, in a state of deregulated global “trade” and influence by massive hydra-like multinationals? Yes it is changing. It’s changing faster than it can keep up with the changes for what’s needed and wanted by new generations and by its funders (both public –ie. taxes & state budget, and private ie. tech & entertainment businesses) and its Board, Administrators, etc. Some schools are obviously businesses, and some are sort of businesses. But I think the idea once was that at least the public universities would be more like public libraries – people could use them if and when they wanted to, for whatever reason they had.
I think that, as in business, whatever sorts of change that “sell” will be supported. Those less popular sorts of change – the kind where it’s harder to show “value” – will be harder to implement. But there are ways to work with that bias toward keeping the university “marketable” as there is some overlap there with keeping the University safe, exciting, productive, and expansive for all sorts of people with a variety of experiences and needs, including those whose voices don’t fit with the popular or loud majority. I’ve seen student activists accomplish some pretty effective changes recently.
I’m interested in how individual voices are nurtured in an institution environment, and how we can work to produce work that is adverse to sameness? How do you begin to break rules in places that are generally fixed to some kind of traditional history?
That’s another complicated question, and there are some embedded assumptions in it about which sorts of sameness we’re working against and which sorts we might not even be able to see because they’re so common. So I’m wondering what you’re talking about specifically here, because I sense a bit of a story or two behind the clean line of your question – an interesting story. That said, “Make it New” as a rallying cry doesn’t always give props to traditional work or workers, even if those traditions are really brilliant and have been undervalued or invisiblized. I like encouraging rule breaking, but I like also to encourage breaking the rule that rule breaking is the most valuable thing to do. The simple answer to your question is to foster a learning environment where there is enough time for participants to engage many different sorts of materials. I think of instructors as very potent in our ability to re-categorize and reframe what other dominant institutions put into categories and hierarchies. So, if I find myself with the same syllabus as all my friends and heroes, I might consider that I have become a little too relaxed in my duty to undermine established ideas of value and importance, and even of pseudo-canon. Like, for a simple example, are all the theorists in this course French or German or do the theorists only reference French and German sources? Why? Is that the secret generic definition of “theory,” that it’s writing from a particular part of the world from a particular time period?
That’s just an example. Or maybe, “Are all the people whose art we’re looking at “cool?” I mean do they sell, are they adored, do they get the thing you’re supposed to want to get if you’re an artist? Are there separate classes to study the cool, liked ones versus the weird, not so popular, unliked ones or do we study their work outside of or in relation to its market, which does not necessarily have anything to do with its actual value(s)?
Being in a community of education that works towards growth seems like an important part of seeking higher education especially to further one’s art practice. Do you think that kind of education can also take place outside of the higher institution environment? Can we continue “higher education” after we graduate or if we never enter that kind of system at all?
Yes, I think we can keep pursuing higher education outside the formal institutions. But “education” might not mean pure “learning” for lots of people. It might mean, for them, a means to a job or advancement or like, one of the quests you do before you can get to the next part of the heroic journey – like a rule and a challenge, but not like something personally fulfilling, necessarily. So in that case, Continuing Education, like what therapists and lawyers have to do, would be the kind of para-institutional system you’re asking about. If you’re asking, instead, about affinity groups learning from each other, yes. That happens. It tends to have a very different sort of prestige attached than education via a recognizable institution, so the participants would have to be fine with giving up that potential prestige in order to get their other needs and values addressed. And then they might get prestige anyway! They would all be seen as the X people who broke away from the X institution and formed a collective and it’s still going on and they’re all doing really well, etc.
I personally love learning about all sorts of new things and ways of doing things, so like on a Saturday night I might be watching a video on the biology of depression from Stanford, but I’m not signing up for tango lessons or animation classes just yet, because I’m totally swamped with work and already overextended. It’s like I hit my limit for making the choice to be endlessly overextended. So now it just feels like I’m super lazy. Or again, maybe just a little burned out. the question is do you feel terminally overextended too, or are you still up for getting all sorts of education everywhere all the time?
I know you have taught feminist theory classes and gender studies and I’m interested in how you think the “experimental” genres of writing lend itself to exploring new ideologies and how the creation of new forms may be necessary to create counter narratives?
This is such a big question, I don’t think I can answer it here. It’s like a ten-volume encyclopedia of answers on the relationship between ethics, ideologies, aesthetics, culture and economics. What I can answer is this: reading and writing and otherwise participating in art experiences are ways for people’s minds to become altered. One of the ways minds are seemingly least plastic are in learned narrative expectations like “heroes are winners and winners are good,” or “fame is every maker’s goal,” especially as dominant ideologies are multiply replicated at insane speeds everywhere I look. So, it seems important to try to keep taking my tiny little axe to that and to show you how other writers have tried. What I want to do really, rather than answering this question with all the time and consideration it deserves is to just give a list of texts that would, if read, answer the question in all the ways it can (this far) be answered, at least affirmatively.But that would be a massive list.
I would also say other forms of counter-cultural speculative writing, not just the kind that gets called “experimental” also reconfigures under examined/ overdetermined categories and ways of lazy thinking – so, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series doesn’t put “form” at center stage, in terms of experimental syntax, diction, narrative structure(s), page-design, etc., but it (and her other novels) fuck around with age, power, intersubjectivity, perversion and ideas of democracy vs. tyranny in very unusual ways. Her protagonists are ones nobody really ever saw before she made them, or at least we didn’t see them over and over and over again in every single movie and novel about trying to determine what freedom means and how to enable it. Likewise, Aline K. Crumb’s work in comics isn’t generally talked about as “experimental,” but look at those lines, that super uncontrolled, controlled mess, those abject anti-heroines standing opposite the triumphant, tidy morally untouchable feminist heroines represented in mainstream oppositional media in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Butler’s and Crumb’s work is experimental, but perhaps not using the vocabulary of a certain euro-daddy lineage of the avant garde. So it gets treated differently. Beware when “experimental” becomes a term for a genre with generic rules and predictable readership demographic. Or, I guess, use it to your advantage and get that chapbook on the Starbucks counter next to their CDs. Beware also people telling you it’s bad to make money. Of course it’s bad. Duh. And we do it, if we can. Many of us can’t. And that’s usually worse. Don’t be ashamed of having choices. They can be taken away at any moment. Don’t let anyone shame you for using the choices you have. They’re trying to avoid feeling the pain of vulnerability, of a sort of powerless empathy. Let them feel and deal. They need to.
I think it is common knowledge at this point that it’s hard to make a living as a writer. Teaching seems to be the frequent pairing with writer or artist, and I wonder how those things coincide, how they support each other or possibly repel each other. How did you find your way to teaching? Did you ever resent it as a backup to your writing career and do you think some teachers specifically in art come to teaching out of failure?
I’ve never had a harder time writing than when I have been working as a writing professor. Except in summers and during sabbaticals – that’s the great part about being a writing instructor at a university. I never thought of myself as having a “writing career” – is such a thing even a thing? I did hear a friend of a friend just made three figures on an advance for a book of essays. I guess that could tide me over for three years. I love teaching writing and literature. I love teaching art. It’s like collaborating, except without the drama or the responsibility for contributing or consensus. It’s amazing. It’s one of my very favorite things to do, paid or unpaid. Except sometimes I have a terrible class – for a variety of reasons, like maybe I’m just off that quarter, or going through a terrible breakup, or worried about something happening in the institution that I can’t talk about, or there’s a strongly negative person in the class and I can’t figure out how to deal with them effectively – and then I watch the class go to shit and I watch myself try to get it back or I watch myself give up and pray for the end of the quarter. It’s not unlike being a student in a disappointing class, except I have all this responsibility for pulling the course together and helping the participants learn. Sometimes it goes to hell. That is when teaching is so awful I think about giving it up and going back to being a paralegal or writing grants. It’s awful like that because I really really care, you know? It gets a lot easier if I can let some of my expectations go, and let the whole thing fall apart sometimes. It’s still not fun.
I would be teaching a different age group or different discipline if I hadn’t gotten my job as a professor of Literature. I really enjoyed teaching pre-composition writing skills in Providence at the Community College. Many of the students had come into the states as refugees from West Africa and Eastern Europe. Also from Haiti. Lots of them were going into medical fields. I loved those students. We studied different concepts of “childhood,” “innocence,” and “experience.” Those were the most interesting classes I’ve ever been part of – also the hardest working students. I think if I ended up working somewhere else for money, I’d like to work with this sort of population again.
I don’t ever really think of my writing as being something lots of people would want to buy in a way that would put food on the table. I can’t compete with the great stuff on TV right now. My work isn’t for a broad audience.
Since I started teaching I have been really interested in the presence of empathy in the classroom. What does empathy mean for you? How do you find it circulating in and around your world, your writing etc.?
Again, this is a question that would require volumes and volumes to answer with any sort of rigor. Or at least a paper or a panel. I’ll say this. You know how Octavia Butler often has these characters that feel other characters’ pain physically? And how that is one of the reasons the physiological empath characters can’t be total abusive assholes – because all pain they cause, they also feel? Well, I feel a lot of pain, and it’s not always clear to me where it’s originated, whether it’s internally generated or gathered from external sources. It’s emotional and its physical. It does not feel good and it’s sometimes overwhelming to the point of incapacitating in professional situations. That sucks. And, at the same time I’d take it (usually) over the opposite malady, narcissism. Empathy can trigger similarly self-absorbed states, (pain is self-centered after all) but I think it’s one of the most interesting things about human beings and other creatures. So, without writing an entire essay on it here, I can relay that it helps me overcome my urges to belittle people whose views I don’t agree with, especially in the classroom where it would be a little too easy, from my position at the front of the room, to belittle them. People don’t really learn when they’re dissociating, you know? Not even the meanest, most self-centered people learn when they’re flooded with shame or rage. So, it’s helpful to be able to see when that’s happening, to modulate the teaching strategy. That sort of intense emotion can be happening for a lot of people at the same time but for different reasons in a classroom or at a performance. It’s usually a good idea to acknowledge that things have just gotten intense and to take a minute to chill or relax somehow. One of the teaching mistakes I’ve made sometimes – always with lasting crappy consequences – is to avoid directly acknowledging that something emotionally hard is happening in a class. I’ve avoided taking that on when I’ve felt too emotionally drained myself to be a good guide and anchor for everyone. I get like that sometimes, burned out. I hate when that happens because there’s all this opportunity for real holistic learning at that point, for all of us, and there just aren’t the conditions to support it – partly because of me and my less-than-ideal self-care, and partly because the amount of emotional labor requested of female arts faculty is just off the freaking charts. Those truths, coupled with our own weird lives, plus constantly trying to be emotionally/ psychically open enough and intellectually engaged enough to make good art, and you’ve got some frazzled empaths in the room. Frazzled empathy can look a lot like being completely checked out, seriously.
Bell Hooks wrote in her book Teaching to Transgress – “Excitement in education was viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process.” I like this quote because there does seem to be an energy that is invoked when you walk into a classroom and a degree in which people pretend to perform the act of knowledge (what they think that looks and sounds like) rather than doing the actual thinking. Oftentimes when that energy becomes too potent, it sucks all of the excitement out of the room. How do you combat that?
You mean like, when people start performing “I’m a fabulous student” or “I’m a fabulous instructor” and it becomes this weird frenetic sort of ego inflation party where everyone is a little high on the ideas and the visibility, a little too high to remember what everyone is actually talking about? I try some slow-down tactics, writing or kinesthetic. I mention that things are getting abstract. I get people to use the situation and apply it to a personal experience. These tactics can help ground that energy, which can so easily become a superficial ego-fest.
We met when you took over the final weeks of a course in my MFA program after the teacher left in the middle of the semester pretty abruptly and there seemed to be a clash that may be generational in the approach to looking at “good writing,” especially when it is framed within the scope of a traditional canon of writers that include a lot of older white men. That teacher seemed to be in favor of the older canon, but I’m wondering how you think we begin to break that canon down and if there should be an emphasis on “good” writing in an educational environment and if so how we begin to define that.
Lots and lots of people have been breaking down the canon for some time now, and with really good results, but the good results are confusing. They create anti-certainty, and so many grad students really want a sense of certainty about what they’re doing. I long for it too! But not at the expense of anti-conformist brilliance and anti-establishment tactics. So, maybe we talk about “constellations” of literature or sometimes – not unproblematically – of aesthetic “genealogies.” So, I don’t begrudge people for wanting certainty and for believing that their own ideas are the right ones – that seems to be built in to being a person. I do like it when people learn strategies for trying to poke holes in their own sense of rightness, but that approach is not especially rewarded. The opposite is rewarded. Maybe only partly because it’s so legible, and for whatever reason, lots of people seem to love a winner or somebody trying to win, which means, side with the winners, which means, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.” The problem is, for lots of us, “the canon” was most obviously broken and worse, cruel or even just status-quo-banal misperception of lived realities, which can have very cruel effects. I can not define “good” writing, still. “Good” still has too many metaphysical and political connotations for me to use it a lot. Or to use “bad” for that matter. I can say “I like it” or “I don’t like it” so easily, I barely need to read it first. I can read the first couple sentences and come up with an opinion. But I’m not all that interested in my opinion. I know that students are, and I try to train them against that. I try to train them to understand the tools we work with, their histories, and to develop their many senses. I try to teach people to learn to feel when they’ve experienced something that feels “true” – and then to make work that generates that sense in them. I’m not sure about good or bad. I’m sure about what feels really deeply true, and I understand that’s subjective and contingent.
I’m excited about all of the D-I-Y publishing projects, chapbooks etc. but not so excited about the distribution of funds that still remain at the helm of major publishing houses. What are your feelings on D-I-Y, and the future of publishing?
I think it’s allowing a lot of people who need to make unpopular works in unpopular ways to make those things and to share them with each other. But I also think it’s important to look at the trade agreements that allowed presses in Singapore and China to print many of these “DIY” books and consider that maybe there’s a connection between neoliberal trade policies and “anti-corporate” publishing – because both are, in some ways, corporate. Now, if you’re talking about hand-cranked zines and online mags and stuff like that – okay. It’s another Gutenberg moment, I guess. Expect new kinds of revolution.
What projects are you working on and how do you think teaching affects your current work?
I’m working on a few projects. 1. A book about a peepshow in neoliberal outer space where people pick their parents before they incarnate as humans, which they’ve chosen to do but are simultaneously completely confused and possibly even deranged. 2. A thriller about a retired FBI secretary and a perimenopausal ex-punk professor who discover weapon that could end particular forms of freaked-out narcissistic sociopathy. 3. A hand-painted rebus about bird divination and reshuffling moral taxonomies.
Teaching writing allows me to remember how long writing a book takes, how frustrating it is, how many words and pages don’t ever actually make it into the book but need to happen anyway, and how it’s very important not to get anyone’s editorial feedback before the first whole draft is finished. Also teaching makes my work happen very very slowly, because it’s not easy for me to do both at the same time, so normally I binge-write in the summers and just teach and do my administrative duties during the school year. So “daily practice” of writing hasn’t really worked for me, and this effects the energy and flow of the writing.
Also, context is catalyzing! I would absolutely not be writing a sci-fi espionage/ sabotage novel if I weren’t working at a science school that has a strong history of interest in both experimental and speculative critical literatures.
Any help from would-be personal assistants is so utterly welcomed (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Anna Joy Springer is an American author, visual artist, feminist punk performer, and an associate professor of writing at University of California, San Diego, where she directs its Master of Fine Arts program. Springer is the recipient of the Distinguished Teaching Award (2010) and the Chancellor’s Associates Faculty Excellence Award for Visual Arts and Performance (2013). She is known for her work in “experimental” literature, including the books The Vicious Red Relic, Love (2011) and The Birdwisher (2009).