Monday, June 6, 2016

To broaden the canon, teach the canon

Over the last 50 years there has been an increasingly heated debate in the academy around the Western canon -- a loosely defined set of texts, art, and other culture products which are considered a key part of a liberal arts education.

At its most base level, this debate might be expressed in the following way:

SJW: "This is all dead white guys! They are bigots and homophobes and Goddess knows what else! Dead white guys are disgusting and they shouldn't be inflicted on students!"
Bro-cademic: "The canon is the canon. It's not our fault most of the great art and literature comes from white guys. Suck it, haters!" 
However, as in most debates, the lowest-common-denominator framing is not all that fruitful. Cooler heads have raised sounder points, to wit:
Critic: The canon is a product of the times in which it was produced, and so it reflects a narrow experience and a narrow interest: mostly male, mostly white, mostly wealthy, etc. Like any institution dominated by a narrow elite (government, business, sport, etc.) the canon's elitism is self-perpetuating, and left unchecked is going to tend to reproduce and reify the dominance of the same narrow group that produced it in the first place. We need to consciously and deliberately take some of the emphasis off the traditional canon and make room for other voices and other experiences, with the end goal of a broader, deeper, richer Western canon.
Traditionalist: The canon is less like a room full of people to which you can add and subtract members, and more like a single interdependent organism which has grown up over several millennia. It isn't practical to force change upon it, any more than it would be practical to rip off several of your fingers because all ten are white.

What's more, while art and literature emerge out of a particular experience and a particular culture and time, they cannot be reduced to that, and if you are determined to do that you not only do not understand the canon, you do not understand art itself. Great art attempts to reach across the barriers of time and space, and through our shared human experience connects the past, present, and future, connects one gender to another, connects minorities and majorities, connects the privileged and the oppressed. We have removed many of the barriers to participation in the maelstrom of culture from which additions to the canon eventually emerge. To substitute an affirmative action of great art would be ineffective and destructive.
So how can we synthesize these views? Because it seems to me that both are true, and both truths are important. On the one hand, our society has discovered over and over that elites are self-perpetuating. If all of your investment bankers are white and male (which, incidentally, is pretty much the case) no one need stand on the barricades waving the banners of sexism and racism in order to keep them that way. People feel more comfortable with people similar to them: those are the people they mentor, hire and promote. People who do not see examples of people like themselves feel discouraged from entering the field. Those that do may find themselves under unfair scrutiny or hostility from those who do not identify as prejudiced but just "like things the way they are." Professors choosing books for their courses, publishers and reviewers (in whatever diminished form they continue to exist) are subject to the same sorts of bias.

Having recognized those dynamics, though, it is not easy to see what the remedy is. You can forcibly integrate a golf club or even a legislature: you can't forcibly add a great book ("great book") to the canon, because that is not how canonicity works:

To works, however, of which the excellence is not absolute and definite, but gradual and comparative; to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind.

One might say: very well, we will not attempt to revise the canon, but merely de-emphasize it, as it has these obviously deleterious effects on the voices of traditionally excluded and marginalized perspectives. But that is problematic in another way, because the canon does not cease to exist because we don't teach it. You cannot broaden the canon by simply ignoring the canon. Things join the canon by imbedding themselves within it in a symbiotic way:
  No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
The only way to broaden the canon is to participate in it. The only way to participate in it is to know it, and to know it well. So in the efforts to broaden the canon I would argue we should study it and teach it more intensively. Rather than encouraging students critical of canon to opt out, we should stand by the "dead white guys" as an essential part of a liberal arts education, especially for those who aspire to advocate change, whether inside or outside the academy.

Attempting to shove the Western canon to the margins in favor of more art and literature from non-Western traditions or modern authors from marginalized communities will not succeed, because while it will produce learners who know many interesting and useful things, they will not know the Western canon, and without knowing it their voices will be powerless to alter it in its courses.

I do not think this need doom marginalized voices to reproducing latter-day copies of ancient art, or internalizing the cultural oppression or justifications for systemic violence that are imbedded there. The teachers of the humanities in the Western world today lay great stress on recognizing these negative features of the canon, it's exclusions, ellipses, oversimplifications and caricatures, and I am sure that will continue.

Having as a guide this education, as well as their own perspectives and experience, the students (creators) of the future will be well supplied with the tools of critical engagement by the traditions of the canon itself. You need not go outside the canon to raise holy hell within it, as even a partial and incomplete list of the relevant tropes illustrates:

1. Parody -- Parody is as old as the canon itself. From Aristophanes to Cervantes, from Shakespeare to Henry Fielding, the simplest and most straightforward way of attacking bad art and bad thinking is to mock it in your own work.

2. Shift of focus -- There are many characters in the Western canon today who are antagonists or comic relief or simply bit players, which cry out for a skilled author or artist to bring their experience into sharper focus. Sometimes we seem to go against the author's intention by doing so; sometimes the seeds of empathy have been planted by the author and need only encouragement to flower. Caliban comes to mind as an example of a "villain" who prospers under this scrutiny; Shylock is another. From Shakespeare to "Wicked" to "The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler," sometimes all the canon needs to be broader and deeper is to be turned on its head.

3. Appropriation of form -- Traditional tools and forms can be applied outside their original context, in a way that confuses our parochial natures by having the Other speak to us in the language of our own tribe. EM Forester puts on a clinic along these lines in "A Passage to India." My own favorite example of this comes out of the brutal anti-black race riots of the "Red Summer" of 1919, where white mobs used terrorism to reclaim a position of dominance which had been slightly compromised by WWI:

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, 
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, 
Making their mock at our accursed lot. 
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die, 
So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; 
then even the monsters we defy 
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! 
Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe; 
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, 
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! 
What though before us lies the open grave? 
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, 
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

I believe in the strength and insight of this generation: teaching them the canon (with the acknowledgement of the canon's shortcomings) is not going to transform them into meek receptacles of tradition. Some say it makes them mad: let it make them mad. That can be a spur for growth, both on a personal level and for the whole tradition (1).

But they should be encouraged to love it despite sometimes hating it; that is the law of family, and if you are an artist, the artists that came before you are your family. Like a lot of older family members, an artist's family has members that are a little or a lot racist, may not have absorbed the lessons of feminism, and may sometimes think and say terrible things. But we don't get to chose our family, and they are still a vital link to our orgins. Love it, hate it, learn it, critique it: the best way to a more broad and inclusive canon is to teach it to those who can broaden it.

1. As one notable Dead White Guy once remarked: "Where there is much desire to learn, here of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

5e PHB Classes: The Bard

Ah, the Bard. Everyone's annoying little brother, tagging along with the cool kids, trying too hard. Where the Wizard has Gandalf and Elminster and Raistlin Majere, while the warriors have Lancelot and Conan and Fafhrd, the bards have . . . Elan.

Surely there are more fictional examples than that to inspire us? Well . . . no, not really. Wikipedia notes that "inspirations for [D&D] bards include Taliesin, Homer, Will Scarlet and Alan-a-Dale." Huh. Well, I've heard of Homer. He was blind, and a fine hand with dactylic hexameter. Not a lot to work with there. While an actual hero, in the sense of being a literary genius and pioneer of storytelling, I do not rate his chances in a standard dungeon crawl very high.

So Bards are rather disadvantaged from a roleplaying perspective, but an even more glaring problem is that they have always been disadvantaged in a mechanical sense. For several iterations of the game, our aspiring Homers had a hodgepodge of abilities, allowing them to chose between being a second-rate rogue, a third-rate fighter, or a cruel mockery of an arcane spellcaster.

To make up for these terrible class abilities, and to have something unique about the Bard, the Bard was gradually transformed into the first buff class -- "Leaders" in the terrible newspeak of 4e. But this made the first problem, storytelling, even worse, because it never made sense that Ming-hu the Barbarian, struggling to scalp an ancient red dragon with his Greataxe, would suddenly hit harder because of a tune the Bard played on their flute. It also never made sense from a gaming perspective -- who wants to be the soundtrack for everybody else's heroic journey? "Your Bardic Song gives Ming-hu +2 to hit and damage." "OK, I'm going to switch from flute to lute and rock the second stanza even harder." ". . ."

But in the 5th edition, that's all history. The awkward preadolescent Bard has come back from metaphorical summer break a foot taller with boobs. The class has gone from wimpy to devastating in one fell swoop.

I will tell you how this happened, but first I urge you to put aside any preconceived notions you may have about the Bard. Suspend your judgement. The Bard has sucked for so long, it may be difficult to appreciate how radically the class has changed. You may find yourself shifting in your seat a little, much like a person who visits the ED for chest pain and sees their frat brother, the Animal, walk in with a white coat and a stethoscope.

To look at the class anew, I suggest you don't think of it as the "Bard." Put the name aside for a minute. I think of it as the 5e "Ninja" . . . because ultimately, I would argue, that's exactly what the class is.

So enough gushing . . . what are the actual changes in the class that have made a Bard skeptic into a believer?

First and foremost -- they are spellcasters now. Real, actual spellcasters, not levels 1-5, kids-table casters like the Ranger or the Paladin. There are now ninth-level Bard spells. In other words, if Bards really existed and they showed up at my door because of all the smack talked of them above, ending up laid out by a Power Word: Kill would not be impossible. How terrible and awesome is that?

They have the normal spell slot progression -- a 17th level Bard has the same spell slots as a 17th level Cleric, Druid, Wizard or Sorcerer. And as an extension of that, their full levels count towards the spell slots of any multiclass character -- making them the choice for a second class for almost any other caster.

The Bard of course does not have the full breath and depth of the Wizard spell list (no one does, or should.) But just by virtue of being a 1d8 hit dice character with weapon and armor proficiencies, who is also a full spellcaster . . . I think we can generalize to the point of saying that no base class with those attributes has ever been underpowered, and that they more often are overpowered (see Druid.)

This suggests Bard might make a good starting class for an aspiring primary caster. Let’s say, for example, that you’re looking for a fresh take on a Fighter/Wizard. You might take Bard 3 and then switch to Sorcerer (probably not Wizard, naturally, since your best stat will be Charisma.)

At third level, you take College of Valor, which nets you martial weapons, medium armor (if you have a Dex of at least 14, half-plate is only a hair less protective than plate!), and shields. You then cross over to Sorcerer with the same spell slots a straight Sorcerer would have, just waiting a few more levels to get access to the next level of spells. Instant Fighter/Wizard type, but sacrificing very little magical punch to get there.

A few levels of Bard would also bring with them a number of minor, but useful abilities, including Jack of All Trades, Expertise, Song of Rest, and Inspiration. All non-overlapping and nicely complementary to a(nother) primary spellcaster’s role.

Jack of All Trades and Expertise, of course, are tied to the proficiency bonus, so you lose none of their effectiveness by leaving the Bard class shortly thereafter.

To go another way with it, take the College of Lore, and now, at 3rd level, you have six(!) skills, entirely of your own choosing, making your primary spellcaster into a Skills Monster as well. Perfect for that Sherlock Holmes/Doctor Who/Gandalf archetype who can think their way through most challenges but still drop a house on you in a tight spot.

Above I suggested thinking of the Bard as a ninja. I wasn't kidding. What are the attributes a realistic ninja should possess?

* They should be a master of deception and disguise (skills: Deception, Persuasion, Stealth, Sleight of Hand, forgery kit, disguise kit)
* They should be gifted at climbing, jumping, swimming, tumbling (skills: Athletics, Acrobatics)
* They should be highly alert and hard to get the drop on (skills: Perception, Insight)
* And finally they should know a little bit about anything that could help them on a mission (which is to say, everything else: the Jack of All Trades ability, granting 1/2 your proficiency bonus to any nonproficient check)

There are ten named skills and tool proficiencies on that list . . . very few can classes come close to that. You get four from your background, four from Rogue, three from Ranger . . . but six when the Bard reaches 3rd level and selects College of Lore.

Further the Bard get double proficiency bonuses on the skills selected for the Expertise feature (two each at 3rd and 10th level, four total.)  So if you want a superhuman acrobatic or master of disguise, the Bard offers that. The rogue has the Expertise feature, but have no magic to speak of. Bard spell list will let you become invisible, charm your foes, fly . . . anything a ninja could want.

And that's before accounting for the Magical Secrets ability, which, frankly, is probably overpowered: at 6th (if you chose the College of Lore), 10th, 14th, and 18th levels, you get two free spells of any level you can cast . . . from any spell list.

The uses and abuses of this boggle of the mind. Fireball? Sure. Wish? No problem. Teleport? True Resurrection? Absolutely. Nothing's off limits.

This has some weird implications. Find Steed (Paladin 2) gets the Paladin his celestial mount. He can't access it until 9th level, but the Bard can ride off into the sunset with a divine warhorse at 6th level. Swift Quiver (Ranger 5) is a powerful spell that grants two extra attacks per round (very few buffs of any kind give two extra attacks in 5e), not too unbalancing for the Ranger, who can snag it at 17th level -- but the Bard with a bent for archery can filch it at 10th level.

Like Warlock spells? (No you won't.) But if you did, you could snag eight of them by 18th level . . . at which point the Warlock himself has only 14. And he has only ten spell slots with which to cast those spells, while the Bard has 22 (!)

I’ll have to think about how these amped up magical abilities work for straight Bards from a storytelling perspective. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense for the guy playing his lute for coins in the bar to study hard, fight a few monsters, and then one day he’s breaking out Power Word: Kill.

On the other hand, there’s a rich fictional tradition of “entertainers” and diplomats who are not at all what they seem. Perhaps a powerful magical order (whose spells revolve around enchantment and illusion, and whose class abilities make them natural spies) is hiding in plain sight as some sort of guild or government department? Are Bards the equivalent of Butcher’s Cursors? Are they an urban take on Tolkien’s Rangers? Are they the freaking Bene Gesserit?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

5e PHB Classes: The Barbarian

Before I begin, let me say that these notes with intermittent commentary will at best be a pale shadow in comparison to the exhaustive PBH reviews over at The Walking Mind. You should read this only if you are still hungry for analysis and reflection after reading everything Rob Donoghue has written on the subject. Or if your internet doesn't go there, or something.

The questions posed by any iteration of the Barbarian are: Is it barbaric? I.e., does it have at least a little bit of the "Hulk smash" vibe? Also, how does Rage work? If it's overpowered or unimpressive, the whole class will be, well, overpowered or unimpressive. Finally, how does it compare to a straight fighter? Since both classes go hand-to-hand to hurt people and break things, they must on the one hand be carefully balanced with one another, and on the other hand significantly different from one another, such that the choice to take one or the other feels meaningful.

5e answers all those questions in the most satisfying way possible. Yes, barbarians are barbaric. They hurl themselves into battle unclad (Unarmored Defense, which now, in contrast with the Next rules, works with shields), sense danger (advantage to initiative rolls), attack recklessly (advantage to your attacks for advantage to theirs), do extra dice of damage on critical hits and, of course, they Rage.

Rage has improved since Next. It no longer counteracts the singular limitation of Reckless Attack, which is granting your enemies advantage on attacks. Instead, a powerful ability from early versions of Next has been resurrected, namely, resistance to slashing, piercing, or bludgeoning damage.

This makes a lot more sense as a mechanic for Rage. If Rage is going to make you superhuman, it shouldn't be making you superhumanly accurate with an axe, rather, it makes much more sense to make you superhumanly able to tolerate punishment. You can then, if you chose, get advantage for your attacks by compromising your own defense, trusting in your capacity to absorb punishment (high hp and resistance.) "Take one to give one" (as they say in boxing) feels much more like a barbarian as compared to "In the grip of a white-hot rage, I never miss."

For anyone confused by the new movie (or the talk show host), this is Conan

At 3rd level, you choose your "Primal Path" and, man, it's a tough call. On the one hand, there's the Berserker, who gets the "Frenzy" ability straight off, which gives you an extra attack per round (it's a bonus action, which becomes important as characters are allowed only one bonus action per round) at the price of exhaustion at the end of the fight (a state with significant downsides which is not easily reversed.) And at 14th level, they get the "Retaliation," which gives them another attack, this time a "reaction," against anyone who damages them in close combat.

On the other hand, the Path of the Totem Warrior brings with it Totem Spirit (3rd), which in turn allows you to chose "Bear" which . . . gives you resistance to all damage (except psychic) while raging.

It's hard to express how cool an ability that is. Psychic damage is rare. It would not be unreasonable to think of this, then, as an ability that doubles your hit points whenever you Rage. If you have 100hp, in effect you have 200hp, because virtually any damage you take will be cut in half.

Another way to think of it would be that Totem Spirit (Bear) grants you resistance whilst raging to fire, cold, poison, necrotic, radiant, acid, force, lightning and thunder damage. Sounds more impressive when you say it that way, doesn't it? Almost unbalanced. On the other hand, barbarians dearly love to hit things, and the Berserker, provided he's engaged in close combat with the Big Bad (and hence doesn't mind being a bit peaked afterwards) will be hitting things twice as often. Tough. Call.

Which brings us to the final, critical point of contrast: the Fighter. Does this Barbarian overshadow the Fighter or vice versa?


No. This Barbarian does all the cool things that made us[1] fall in love with Barbarians when they debuted in Unearthed Arcana (see above). They're fast, their reaction times are enviable, and you wouldn't like them when they're angry. They're tougher, not so much because of the few extra hit points as because of resistance. In their final form, at 20th level, they get +4 Strength and +4 Constitution, immediately giving them 40 more hp, +2 to AC, and all the other advantages associated with being the biggest, baddest, toughest mothers in the game.

Fighters, though, as we'll see, more than hold their own, maxing out at four (sometimes eight) attacks per round, rerolling failed saves, dabbling in magic or dirty tricks or easy crits, and generally being fearsome in their own right. Much more on this to come.

So if you are a stout patron of Linear Warriors, which one are you gonna prefer? Mechanistically, a stellar Barbarian needs three things: Str, Dex, & Con. A fighter really only needs one: Str or Dex. So if you fall in love with both classes, choosing between them for a particular set of dice rolls is going to be as simple as: how many high scores to you have?

The PHB class system is off to a great start.

Up next: The Bard

1. And by "us," clearly I mean "very old people who bought Unearthed Arcana when it came out."