Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of Pedagogy
Percival Everett and James Kincaid, USC College professors of English, transcend boundaries in the Inside the Academics Studio’s finale for this academic year.By Pamela J. Johnson
April 1, 2007
Some believe English professors are divided into two groups: scholars and creative writers. At times, tension, even squabbling, exists between the camps.
“No, I don’t,” replied scholar and professor Kincaid.
“No?” asked Everett, appearing somewhat relieved. “Why?”
“Nobody cares about the writers,” Kincaid deadpanned.
Kincaid holds the Aerol Arnold Chair in English at USC College. Everett is a USC Distinguished Professor of English.
Such good-natured ribbing was abundant during a recent installment of Inside the Academics Studio, the speaker series meant to familiarize doctoral students, among others, with the College faculty. The program is part of the USC College Doctoral Fellows Program.
Typically, one professor interviews another during the videotaped sessions.
“This is the grand finale for the academic year, so this one is going to be different,” said Jennifer Wolch, dean of graduate programs in the College, whose office sponsors the series, as she introduced the two professors. “These guys demanded equal grilling opportunities, so they are going to interview each other. This will be an intriguing session.”
During the session, Everett and Kincaid discussed their satirical novel, A History of the African-American People [Proposed] by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid (Akashic Books, 2004).
In the book, the characters Kincaid and Everett agree to ghostwrite an alternative African-American history for South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. The GOP and Dixiecrat senator who died in 2003 at age 100 is best known for his fervent support of segregation and opposition to civil rights.
“It’s very easy to hate someone like Strom Thurmond,” Everett said. “And as we started working on it and reading about him, I decided I didn’t hate him. It became apparent that it wasn’t that he disliked black people. He just liked white people more.”
Like the Odd Couple, the co-authors sparred over the right way to talk about their protagonist.
Everett marveled at Thurmond’s audacity, and related a tidbit from the Southerners early career as a local official: “Here was a man who was making out with a woman who was on her way to be executed.”
Kincaid demurred, and noted the tale was too gently put: “They were moving [the female prisoner] from the county jail to the main jail where they had the electric chair,” Kincaid chimed in. “Strom rode along in the back seat and as Percival euphemistically put it, ‘made out.’ What era is that from? They had sex in the back seat, yes.”
Everett, who has authored 15 novels, considered writing about Thurmond after the title of the book “came to me one morning.”
“But I had no conception of what it would be,” Everett said. “I mentioned it to Jim and we started working on it.”
Everett concluded that Thurmond “wasn’t the devil.”
“Though he wasn’t a fair and just man, there was something particularly interesting about him,” said Everett, who grew up in South Carolina, Thurmond’s home state. “He wanted to do what was right, it was just that he had a warped compass. Or he had an American compass.”
Also during the session, the professors discussed their teaching philosophies. For example, Kincaid, who joined the College faculty in 1987, vented about one of his biggest peeves: grades. Kincaid doesn’t believe in them, and he often asks his students to grade themselves.
“Grades are useful for employers, they’re useful for graduate schools and things like that,” Kincaid said. “But whether they’re useful educationally is open to serious question.”
Kincaid said grades — or a purely goal-oriented approach to teaching — stifle the curiosity. He defined curiosity as “the love of problems for their own sake.” He said students should be encouraged to enjoy working out problems, instead of caring only about solutions.
Other topics broached ranged from blogging — which Everett likened to a grand-scale version of writing on bathroom walls — to urban L.A. and homelessness.
Everett told the crowd that he once lived in downtown L.A., about a block from Skid Row. When he said he liked living there, an audience member asked him why.
“Because it was alive,” Everett said. “For all the sadness, I felt that these are the real pioneers. These are people who are a lot tougher than I am, who live everyday and erect cardboard boxes and sleep in them. And then go out, maybe all day long, looking for cans and bottles. That’s hard work. These are not lazy people. These are people who are working hard to survive. And I just don’t know if I’m that tough. So to me, that’s exciting. That’s the frontier.”
When an audience member asked whether the professors felt a responsibility toward their students, Kincaid said yes, especially in regard to preparing graduate students for careers in academia. But he also feels frustrated because full-time professorial positions are scarce.
Everett, who teaches in the English department’s doctoral program in creative writing, said his decision to train young writers is in some ways a fools errand, a Sisyphean task.
“If I find out a student has come into the writing program because they want to teach, I pretty much discourage them,” Everett said. “This won’t help you with that. This is about learning to write fiction. Which I can’t teach you (either).”
Kincaid said education should be like the caucus race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the story, a group of animals, led by a dodo, race in order to get dry. But the race has no ending or winner.
“Everyone starts running when they want and they leave off when they want,” Kincaid said. “Everyone wins and everybody gets prizes. That’s the kind of educational system that would be ideal.”