Side Two is an ongoing column that engages the personal experience of listening to an album for the first time. It is less about the original intentions of the author(s) that created these aural invasions and more about the individual experience of engagement at the ground level. Take the album away from its point in punk rock history and what does it mean to you?
i. Something I Learned Today
I spend a lot of time listening to “new” music while I grade papers. New to me, at least. It‘s a time when I need white noise so I can get through a stack of poorly written essays on the military industrial complex, the intricacies of Cadmus, or Karl Marx’s beard. Otherwise, if I put on anything else on it quickly becomes a dance party. During my time teaching at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, I would find my way up to our popular music library to seek out some classic background noise. Something old, something new, something that will enrich while my brain cells slowly die from lead poisoning.
I drop off my load of papers at a listening station. I head over to the checkout counter to request some albums to listen to from the kindly undergraduate librarian. It must have been my first midterm, more likely my first final. I was wired and just wanted to get through these stacks of papers so I could make my way home to New York for the holidays. I asked for albums I knew nothing about (but should know something about). I had talked to a classmate earlier that semester about music and though he said he was never into punk, he did have Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü. I hadn’t really listened to them—though I knew the name. It jumped into my consciousness next to Fugazi’s The Argument and they became the first two albums for listening during that grading period. The first two I would listen to on vinyl, even.
Zen Arcade is aggressive and fast paced. 23 tracks make up a little over an hour of music that range from undulating instrumental tracks to Bob Mould’s repetitive growls that ask for more more more moremoremoremore. Faster and faster and with distortion at every angle. It tells the story of a youthful journey of transcendence from the Midwest that takes place in a dreamscape. It is the perfect image of a teenager’s brain circa 1984. It is the moment when hardcore was embraced by alternative rock and college radio. It is the soundtrack to grading papers that makes me question my teaching abilities.
As Grant Hart snaps a snare to open up “Something I Learned Today” my pen begins to scratch into the surface of purple test paper. Examination paper soiled by lead pencils, answers that are as weak as the graphite used to write them. My students were not dumb, but after a semester you would think they would have everything cleared up by now. This is the final moment they have to cement their grades in time for holiday presents and a month-long break. Yet the answers are muddled. Thoughts mixed and mashed up.
“Something I learned today/Black and white is always grey/Looking through the window pane/I’m not inside your brain/Something I learned today/Yield to the right-of-way/Stopping at a 4-way sign/Someone else’s rules, not mine…”
“Something I Learned Today” lacks trust. It shows how simple it is to be lost and confused in the regulations of a culture not your own. The student answers to my questions reinforce this. There is a lack of trust in their own answers. Even when given the chance to argue a point in short and long form sections, they replicate arguments that I made in class, never once wondering if there is a second, third or fourth side to engage with. One student writes so finely on the paper with his pencil that you have to hold it up to the light to see the letters that make up words and phrases that might answer the question. Some even pull right from my lectures and it begins to look like my words staring back at me through some carnival mirror: “Biopolitics is the like the differences between pizza in Chicago and New York…The ISA is the “Ironic State Apparatus” because…Slash fiction is about slasher movies and why slutty teenagers…”
It was a myriad of words I had used in class, but in the wrong order. They were disjointed and removed from their original meaning so badly that I started to question what was a right or wrong answer. End of the year stress with a dash of “do I really need to study for a class on popular culture?” Survey says “yes.” Survey also says never to trust students when they nod in unison to “understanding” a concept. They can understand it, but can they apply it?
“Something I learned today/Never look straight in the sun’s rays/Letting all the sunshine in/Can’t remember where I’ve been…”
Mind you, not every one of my students was like the hyperbolic and absurd sentences presented a moment ago. Those are made up examples, of course. Many other answers read like poetry, small novels. Those papers looked less like they were taken from an abattoir on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and more like newborns on Easter Sunday.
By “Hare Krsna” I had tunnel vision in my grading. I was aware of who was bullshitting and who was taking furious notes all semester. Heat could be felt off my pen, and what felt like an eternity was only fifteen minutes and five of 30 papers. I could smell the sweat on their brows as I glanced at answers that ended abruptly or forgot what the question was entirely. These were the manifestations of the last minute studying. The whirring and buzzing of Hüsker Dü paired nicely with the cacophony of indecision that was a freshmen final in an elective. Yet, it also reminded me of my own shortcomings as a teacher.
ii. What’s Going on
When you grade papers whose answers are so frayed you start to wonder if you were teaching the right things or having a long standup set, three days a week, for 15-30 students. You start to wonder if you were telling them the right things to take away from a reading or a scholar. As you grade you start to empathize and think that maybe, just maybe you were being too hard on the students before you started grading this particular test. You go back. You check the other grades next to the one you are doing right now and wonder if they are getting the questions wrong because you didn’t teach them well enough….or just because they didn’t want to study. How will this reflect on you? At the end of the day that’s what matters most, how it will affect your future as a teacher, as a scholar. Are you doing what’s right? Do you understand the information that was being parsed out each week? Did you hit all the points they needed to succeed or did you set them up for failure…
“I was talking/When I should have been listening/I didn’t hear a word that anyone said/It might not have been so very important…”
You start to fret that you weren’t right for this position, or at least I did about halfway through my grading. To make matters worse, students have to go and be human in their responses. Using different words to explain the same theories and developments in cultural studies over the past 50 years. Why can’t they be automatons every once in a while when I am telling them things?
“What’s going on inside my head.”
I wondered. Surely I wasn’t the only person who was able to guess my students by their handwriting, put their grades up to how they were answering their questions and want them to do better. Want them to pass so that they didn’t have to explain to their parents why they failed a course on popular culture. Pop Culture. How do you fail that class? I knew their parents would ask why they couldn’t pass a class that must have been about Family Guy and baseball stats. Their passing and failing was a reflection on me, on my school, on my department—at least in that moment of sheer frustration when you want them to ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION CORRECTLY.
You want empathy, but sadly you have to stay sterile. Can’t play favorites. You look at their grades over the semester and you know that they weren’t putting in the effort they should have been. Not asking the questions or for the help. Nodding along that they understood a lesson with their classmates when they clearly did not. In one ear and out the other.
You have to remind yourself that your job is to make sense of these answers not because you are judge and jury, but because the ones answering it need validation that they are thinking the RIGHT way. Not the way you want them to answer, but to answer in the first place. To say something to a prompt that may let them think about new possibilities. “The Tooth Fairy and The Princess” plays. It tells me to “don’t give up/don’t let go/don’t give in”– a first for a punk rock song, for me at least. It pushes me through the last few papers with a hope that, though some students will fail, that you got them thinking—for a change. They have had their first venture into college courses, outside of suburban enclaves, past the farmland of northwest Ohio, into an unknown. Blurred by fuzzy sounds, but filled with new adventures. The ending is not set, but keeps going, and going and going, building to a crescendo that leads you out of one path and onto another.
iii. Reoccurring Dreams
The end of the semester is a reminder that everything is not finite, that things can change. We live in a sort of dream world when we are in college—both instructors and students alike. There is no world outside of the ivory towers, dusty books and unruly search engines until final grades are posted. When we finally get to look up from our desks, five months have gone by. The things we taught, the things that we had to fight and the theories we put into practice wash away as we return from a restless sleep.
I figured that going to graduate school was going to answer all of my questions. Instead, it brought them into view through the framings of fancy words and classroom discussions that droned on and on. I had moved away from home, I had found a type of religion; I had found militancy in arguing for the humanities for the sake of humanity. In the end, at the end of grading and the end of classes, it was all a dream in a small corner of the world. Old questions begat new ones. As soon as you have the right answers, your head is smashed in by new ones. Wave after wave of eclectic energies. Zen Arcade reminds us in its closing track that we live in a cyclical world. We can pick and choose what we want to say—to believe—but it is up to us to make sense of it when a new question is asked. The red ink telling us what is right and wrong is a false dichotomy. It is, instead, a wound that can be opened and sealed over and over again.
Zen Arcade is a white noise that gains new meaning with every revolution. A cacophony of thoughts that gives us clarity for a moment, before returning us to the haze of eraser marks and lead points, dull and unbroken, in an ever changing dreamscape.