The Thing of Important

600-wallaceAnd so on this morning, as Oscar Pistorius apologizes and Mickey Rooney dies, I am home sick on a rainy day. Too sick to teach, but not too sick to read and type. Lucky you.

Reminded of some rainy days in the spring of 1996 when I was home sick too. Right in the middle of my spring break at The Field School, and mad at the world to be spending my vacation hacking and puking on the couch.

My only comfort was a book called Infinite Jest, the mammoth and literally-unbelievably dense latest novel by David Foster Wallace, which I’d purchased at the urging of my best friend and, before the year was out, would finish, in part due to a couple more “sick days” I’d call in just to be able to keep reading. (Dale, I trust the statute of limitations that previously prohibited this confession has expired.)

I am remembering those days because I’m in the throes of conceptualizing a fall 2014 Honors class on Mr. Wallace’s work and how it informs an understanding of teaching and learning. So once again (and once again) I am knee deep in his stuff, experiencing the sort of sweeping-up and losing-of-oneself in words and reticulate arguments that his fans know well and, in some of his work, was the exact artistic aim he was working for.

That aim wasn’t merely aesthetic, though: it sought to embody something urgent and terrifying and sad about late twentieth-century life and our relationship to its entertainments and diversions. The insight – that we lose something crucial in remaining content with our cleverness – was the literary objective of his patricidal impulse toward his postmodern fathers, and led him to apply his staggering intellect toward short-circuiting the ironies and misdirections of postmodern fiction toward something more urgent and (yes) wholesome than cleverness. His oeuvre can thus be profitably read as an effort to use all the formidable language and structural powers at his disposal to the end of exploring and invoking an evolving understanding of what Wallace called, memorably, “single-entendre principles:” values that might constitute a more stable basis for engaging life than the emptier calories of infinite jest.

And so the class’s thesis is that the ways Mr Wallace’s take on this core theme evolves and changes over his writing career adumbrates something urgent and life-giving for those of us who spend our lives with younger people similarly seeking meaning in what they are doing. Intentional fallacy notwithstanding, I think the arc of Wallace’s personal life, combined with his intellectual rigor and commitment to living in a principled way, is a crucial factor in understanding the evolution of his art and, to some extent, the engine that drove it.

That, from this perspective, perhaps Wallace is a singular example of what it looks like when we accept Parker Palmer‘s invitation to bring “who we are to what we do” and seek to live “divided no more.” The tragic end of Wallace’s life at 46, by suicide, is an aspect of this argument that might seem incongruent with my scheme. How can we glean lessons on a life well-lived, and how to nurture such in our students, from one whose own life ends this way? Perhaps. But right now I feel even that part may invite a more compassionate understanding of our own natures and our need to reconcile ourselves to who we are, deeply. More directly, I think we can look hard at all of it, perhaps rescuing the argument (and its implications for our practice) from intentional overreach at the precise moment we’ll most need to.

It maybe goes without saying (1) that trying to find something beyond cynicism is the cold, hard bedrock of teaching: thus the affinity between Wallace’s literary project and my vocational one. I seek every place where we can get purchase for teachers against a common-sense view of our work that is increasingly cynical – one that views teachers as liabilities in the classroom to be “proofed” against with lockstep curriculum and ever-tightening accountability measures (the busy work that comes with these latter burning countless hours of a teacher’s professional life, thus keeping her too tired and distracted to do anything real). We need loud, smart voices that argue that what we do is life-giving, not in narrow careerist ways but in all the broadest “why-are-we-here” ways. This is my real work, and it rhymes so closely with Wallace’s that there has to be a way for the two to inform each other.

It’s also incredibly important to do this with Wallace as a teacher in the forefront of our minds. Because he was a teacher, for most of his life, and while he sometimes describes ambivalence about that work in interviews (interviews that are crafted, funhouse-mirror responses in many other ways, let’s note), I have found exactly zero evidence of that ambivalence in the online memories so many of his students began to post after his death. Whatever he was doing – whatever his personal discipline about what came into the classroom and what stayed out; whatever function the rigors of the schedule and the demands of his students served in helping him structure his written output – it worked a lot more than it didn’t. Teacher to teacher, I’ll have what he’s having. (2)

So this is what I am mostly working on right now. Other themes that Wallace lets us profitably consider, that will find place in the course:

  • the difficulty of knowing one’s own mind, let alone another’s;
  • the nature of expertise and how it is cultivated;
  • the ultimate value and purpose of living in community;
  • how, once beyond entertainment, we might access the deepest aspects of human experience (aspects that, for all their nutritive value, may be “boring”).

Maybe the most personal resonance for me is the one I tried to explain years ago, in a sloppy and painful piece that same friend and I wrote days after his death. I think the bit at the end still gets at the real relation, the underlying theme:

…that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain—and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril.

What an interesting project this is shaping up to be. Like my dissertation, it sort of feels inevitable, the thing I would be working on if I didn’t have to be working on anything (say, because I was home sick). Insert “flow” experience reference, Malcolm Gladwell, etc etc, whatever. This work aligns with David Hansen’s wonderful definition of vocation: work that both has social value AND personal significance, that precious sense that one has somehow slotted into the work one is uniquely capable of doing. Sign me up.

(1) – Rarely the case, in this post. I know that when I am reading Wallace I begin to ape his mannerisms, which in my defense is surely more a generational tic than a personal one. Haters will appreciate that I have limited myself to one footnote.

(2) – Sorry, two. Assuming The Howling Fantods‘ very industrious web-bot picks up and re-posts this: Is anyone else out there interested in doing scholarly work on Wallace as teacher? I can find nothing in the emerging literature, and am eager to connect with others interested in exploring the area. Maybe I’ll edit an anthology. Please be in touch if so – osmond (at) appstate (dot) edu – wish I could be in Normal next month to meet some of you, but maybe next year.

Thanks to New York Times for image.

Elliot Eisner: my teacher

I learned tonight the sad news that Elliot Eisner has passed away. Elliot was my masters advisor at Stanford, and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his wisdom, his support, and his care.

I remember talking to him on the phone from my little office in the Carriage House at The Field School in 1998. I wanted to go to grad school to understand why my students were having transformative experiences in my theater classes. US News and World Report said Stanford was a great place to do that, and their web site said he was the guy to talk to about it, so I called him after school one afternoon. He answered, and we talked about it for a few minutes.

In hindsight, I imagine that conversation was what got me in. If I had known his stature in the field – been smart enough to be intimidated – I never would have called. But I didn’t, and he picked up, and I guess my ignorance passed for gumption and self-confidence. Lives have been changed by dumber lucky breaks.

He was a wonderful professor, a fabulous teacher. He had a way of slowing down the room to track the deliberate speed with which he was working something out. He would speak slowly, usually in full paragraphs, his hands silently rising to gesture gracefully in the air as he made his points. I could listen to him all day, and did. He defied my best wisdom up until then about great teaching: that it was about being the loudest and most interesting thing in the room. He was quiet, barely moving sometimes, but his erudition and the architecture of his thought did the work.

He also showed me the power of thinking hard about something for a long time. If it was the right thing, you could ride it all the way to the beach, over and over. For him, the question was, “what do the arts have to teach us about education”- and he rode that wave as far as it would go, in every area, for forty years. Curriculum, assessment, evaluation, design, pedagogy, artistic experience itself: each path leading to its own more-or-less discrete book, transforming and, in some areas, re-inventing each field he explored. I read him so closely that I don’t even recognize how deeply his thought has sunk into me sometimes – I know it so well that I don’t think to footnote it. For me, its explanatory power has become common sense.

He taught me the lovely, goofy word “adumbrate,” and was so fond of it he couldn’t write five pages without using it. I drop it somewhere in most of my papers now, my little private tribute.

He dug my ideas. In my experience, we find our legs as thinkers in part because of the support offered early on by those who care about us, and he cared about me. I remember the surge I felt when he discussed my project on the use of scat language in jazz to connote what couldn’t be denoted, because it represented a relation in sound, not words. What a thrill when he got what I was driving toward, and celebrated its insights. What an affirmation.

I read Dewey’s Art as Experience in his gorgeous NoCal-funky living room, every corner crammed with statues and paintings from around the world. We ate little snacks Ellie prepared for us and tried to parse that crazy, dense book. I’ve never thought harder.

He asked my help once hauling a few huge computer monitors from his campus office to his home, back when they were like slabs of beef to lift. He drove a burgundy (I think) Porsche 911 with a vanity plate that read, “PORSCHT” (ha ha, oy gevalt). Cruising around Palo Alto in Elliot’s zip car, top down, a heavy monitor putting my legs to sleep: that’s a grand Stanford memory.

He invited me to stay and do the doctorate with him, and I turned him down, clumsily. We were expecting our first son, and I was scared about being so far from our families on the other coast. I remember a passionate talk with the head of the teacher ed program about whether or not to leave Stanford. “A degree from Stanford carries a certain…cache,” she warned. Unimaginable, to pass on such an opportunity. (“He’s already got a degree from Stanford,” chimed in a smartass friend, in my defense.) I left badly, deciding too late for another guy to take my place – silly and selfish. Still a regret of mine, but one I worked out, both with the other guy at AERA a few years later, and with Elliot when my job in Chapel Hill took me back out there for a week in 2005. He was already sick, then, but gracious: happy to have me back in his home, talk about what we did and what I was doing. Unfailingly interested, and always supportive.

In hindsight, I am very glad I left when I did. Doing my doctorate with Elliot, I am pretty sure, would have found me coloring in a corner of the world he had mapped. Madeleine Grumet, my advisor in Chapel Hill, wisely encouraged my interest in the arts as well as its roots in subjective experience and autobiography as explicated by reconceptualist curriculum theory. Her extraordinary scholarship, mentorship, and friendship prepared me so much better, I think, for the life and career that has found me since. It also set me up for my work at the med school at UNC, which helped me find and form my passion for the preparation of caring professionals and the role of story and the arts in their thriving.

And leaving Stanford was an early step in my ongoing effort to grow in my own self-confidence and self-worth beyond the meritocratic rat race that the academic life can cultivate in us. We can be driven by who we know, who we publish with – all the shibboleths and status signifiers that make an academic conference like the Oscars, sometimes, showbiz kids making movies of themselves. I was quite susceptible to that grift, and was well-served to get clear of much of it. There are firmer grounds upon which to build a life, for me.

But none of what I have been able to do would have been possible were it not for Elliot’s interest in and care of me. I honor tonight his willingness to attend to a student, really attend; to take a call from a stranger, and to support someone’s best efforts to grow and change, to be someone else, however tentative.

There will be better tributes to the man, but this one is mine. As my semester starts, I recommit to emulating that energy and interest in my work with the students I am honored to work with now, today, tomorrow. Thank you, Elliot, for everything.

Image from Stanford’s web site.

Pacific Rim, Ender’s Game, nightmares, and the language of children

1816935-godzilla1954cKaiju are children’s monsters. “Strange monsters” is the literal translation, which reminds that to a child, strangeness alone is frightening. Even as it begins to evolve into a tentatively self-confident curiosity, first engagements with the unknown are saturated with primal concern about what is threat and what is not – unfamiliar food spat out, new grown-ups eschewed for the arms of Mom or Dad. They are not childish monsters, which we might think them to be, those of us who first met Godzilla and Mothra and Rodan on Saturday matinee television, laughing in confusion at their silly man-in-a-suit theatrics and poor overdubs. No, children’s monsters: origin, intention, even full size unknown, proliferating like true nightmares do, the real ones that we never talk about and half-remember but still carry with us in their wrenching affirmation of our ultimate powerlessness.

My earliest nightmare recurred for years, probably tracking the frequent ear infections that would wake me in the middle of the night screaming in pain. It had something to do with a whirring gyre, the teeth of its gears made of sharpened yellow #2 pencils, coming closer and closer to my face. Sounds silly in the daylight, of course, and I even remember it sounding silly as I described it to my mother perched on the edge of the bed. Pencils, really? But I can see now that its dynamic is rooted in the most primal of fears: being trapped before an implacable and unknowable force. It was probably linked to the ad I saw (against my parents’ TV programming, certainly) for Empire of the Ants that featured a couple of seconds of a monstrous, human-sized ant mobilizing toward a trapped human, unblinking compound eyes staring and feelers waving. Nowhere to run, and no way to negotiate. It’s coming for you.

Guillermo del Toro has always had a live connection to the real roots of childhood fear, from Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone through Pan’s Labyrinth and on to his latest masterwork, Pacific Rim. The key to getting del Toro’s best stuff is giving yourself up to its rules, the ways its environments and set pieces, like an actual nightmare, don’t yield to the time and pace of mature, daylight reckonings. Kaiju don’t respond to our expectations that our enemy can be known. They come mysteriously from deep in the ocean, and then they come faster, each one different and finally bigger than the last, evolving new weapons and toxicities the intrepid human-piloted warrior robots are unprepared to match.

Children know their world tentatively, if at all. With no sense of scale, adult-sized things are giant (remember Dad’s shoes, how scary a teacher was when angry), and the proportions hold for us adults when we see the streets of Hong Kong or Sydney or San Francisco stomped and ravaged and kicked over like sand castles before a kaiju rampage. That’s the stuff of Pacific Rim: fight after fight between monsters and the robots humans have constructed at unimaginable expense to repel them, played indiscriminately in (evacuated) urban arenas.

The emotional lynchpin of these struggles takes this disproportion to its limits, as a Japanese kindergartner is chased down an avenue by a rampant kaiju, cornered behind a dumpster and almost caught. Del Toro stays on her face, and in this grand battle of skyscraper-sized behemoths the terrors are distilled in her bereft weeping, face frozen, clutching one shoe as she limps through the pulverized terrain. The scene is noisy, but not with speech. She says nothing, only weeps, whimpers, screams and, when she finally beholds the possibility of her survival, her face opens into a rictus of bliss I (not alone) link to Kabuki’s ritualistic engagements and resolutions. Complete, abject terror, resolved in equally complete, all-consuming relief.

Children are always outsized and outgunned, but the deepest way children are helpless before their monsters is their incapacity to reason with them, or themselves. As grown-ups, we speak into our fears, neutralize or at least disperse them by talking about them and being heard (like I did a few paragraphs ago). But the child has only nascent power to become a speaking subject, co-creating herself in dialogue with the world, and this vulnerability is frequently exploited in horror as childish imagination and immature judgment makes the child the conduit for cajoling, unspeakable forces from beyond. The Shining, Paranormal Activity 2, The Conjuring: all their early movements include a puzzling demon becoming a child’s imaginary friend, always with a scene of one-way dialogue between child and invisible monster that terrifies because we see the child’s yearn for connection, misplaced in malevolence. In Pacific Rim it’s even worse: no response to a creature incapable of dissimulation, of being anything other than it is, but mute, open-mouth, obliterating horror. Survival for Pacific Rim‘s kindergartner comes in a relationship to a benevolent caregiver, who teaches safety and love through actions first and finally through words, complicit in the co-creation of a new person through a life of speaking into each other. He learns her language, and she his. Words and stories lead to protection and, eventually, healing.

It’s a lot of work to witness true creativity when it shows up in a $150 million summer blockbuster.* Its light is mighty bright, compared to waves of studio-safe retreads of 70s cartoons and their sequelae. I was exhausted at the end. This movie is a mash note to creature features and Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots, rendered in a grittily loving detail that suggests a Day-Glo Blade Runner sometimes (del Toro on the gorgeous color: “I kept asking John to tap into his inner Mexican and be able to saturate the greens and the purples and the pinks and the oranges”), and it almost wore me out to see how carefully rendered the details of this film were, the names and locations as well as the mechanical logics (YouTube trolls notwithstanding). The sheer scale of the battle scenes mean that weight and mass need to be thought through and rendered, and the result is overwhelming, obliterating.

Then again, I respond deeply to true fanboy obsession wherever it shows up, as I’ve described elsewhere. Seeing somebody run to the limits of their obsessions and terrors in their work, in fully vulnerable touch with their love and not particularly caring who else gets it. I emulate that slight madness in my own writing, insisting that the personal is inextricably part of the thoughtful, the heart that courses real blood through our wonderings and wanderings. Hear the fanboy par excellence within the mega-director:

I didn’t want to be postmodern, or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, something madly in love with those things. I tried to bring epic beauty to it, and drama and operatic grandeur.

But that same auteur takes the piss out of himself too, in love with the limits of genre as well as its affordances. Describing how he left an hour of character development on the cutting room floor, he notes:

We cannot pretend this is Ibsen with monsters and giant robots. I cannot pretend I’m doing a profound reflection on mankind.

So it’s just a monster movie, after all. Peter Jackson talks this way sometimes too, as do Tarantino and James Cameron (though he’s a bit harder to listen to – maybe decades of having literally bottomless resources to pursue all your fantasies backs up on you personally and makes you a little insufferable). Pacific Rim isn’t an exercise in showing how much he’s thought about kaiju and mecha, though he has; he doesn’t really care about whether or not he’s coming off uncool for what he loves. He just loves it, and is going to go dig it hard now – would you like to come?

I love it too. Hope I can find some excuse to watch it again, with others, soon.

* I have thought too much about the Ender’s Game film to really say anything about it, I fear, but maybe I can start in a footnote. Ender’s Game seemed to play it safe in all the ways that Pacific Rim swings for the fence. Despite its lovingly-rendered Nerf-y laser tag suits and the authentically childish stakes of its locker-room conflicts, the movie fell flat for me, visually, in its workaday palette and impoverished investment in Ender’s inner life. The nightmare of the book – that the grown-up who tucked you in is, in fact, your enemy, that he’s been here all along – fizzled out in Harrison’s Ford desultory resignation to the imperatives of the politico-industrial war machine that manipulates him. Also, the choice to leave Peter simply a bully (and eliminate all the blogging and pamphleteering that made him and his sister the interesting intellectual counterparts of Ender’s wounded hero) gutted the film emotionally, for me. It’s a horror story too, not merely a military procedural, but the horror got lost. The story seems to have so much to say about education and the trust between children and the adults whose vocation is their care, but much of the scholarship on the thing doesn’t give much light to me. Perhaps I should think about it harder.

Or maybe it just needed more color, del Toro – style. All that gray and blue reminded me of Dress for Success, the eighties bible to business fashion and seventies-sartorial corrective that admonished, mainly, that the gravest sin in professional dress was looking like somebody. And I did not buy Ben Kingsley’s face tattoos and the Maori thing. Whaaa?

Thanks to giantbomb.com for image.

letter not-to the editor

Written and not sent; that’s what a blog is for, right? Still deeply felt. Event is tonight: App folks who read this, I’ll see you there!

- c

I was raised in a conservative religious household, and recall the concern I inherited – absorbed through my skin, like oxygen – about the depravity of some art, literature, movies, and music. I remember how I felt in my deepest heart when reading something that seemed offensive to my values, a wounding that felt like I had betrayed my God and my people by even casting my eyes, let alone my mind, on such stuff. I remember that arguments for the literary, artistic, cultural value of a such a document were unconvincing to me. If anything, they affirmed that I was “in the world, but not of it;” that, as Matthew taught me, “ye cannot serve God and Mammon,” and any rationale that Mammon offered only deepened my resistance and my greater turning toward God.

I remember these powerful experiences of wounding and healing, acceptance and rejection, as I witness our community’s controversy about the teaching of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits to tenth graders at Watauga High. Arguments against the book have turned on the unsuitability of its sexually explicit and violent passages for inclusion in curriculum. Defenses have included appeals to the work’s universally-recognized literary merit (even, in a letter to the county school board, by the author herself), character references of the teacher involved, and insistence that the book is approved for inclusion in the tenth grade curriculum and that an alternate was offered (so, really, why should anyone be upset)?

I am torn up about how this dialogue is unfolding: how closely it follows the narrative of so many controversies about curriculum. It seems initially to be about legality and literary quality, each side trying to educate the other about risks and benefits it apparently cannot conceive. But I am beginning to see that the core issue is actually the authority we give or withhold from the school to speak into deeply-held differences of our society. The Reagan-era school prayer flap was the first time I noticed the conflict. In our times it includes evolution/creationist science curricula, sex ed, political advocacy, The Pledge of Allegiance, Scouts in the cafeteria in the afternoon, and on and on. We are a deeply divided nation on many fronts, and the school is the brightest flashpoint as we work out our own anxieties through the presumably more manageable lives of our children. We don’t know what we want our schools to do for them (us), how uncomfortable we are willing to let school make them (us). So we fume and fret and grumble to those who agree with us about what the world is coming to as the other side drives us into the ditch.

My best response to this tension comes out of what happened to me after I left home. I attended a university with an unfailing commitment to supporting exploration of every controversy, and trusting that that the community, through respectful dialogue, would find its way. I encountered attitudes and values at school that were deeply different than mine, and as a result found my own changing: about culture, politics, gender, sexuality, and ultimately the nature of my faith. Through respectful – though sometimes heated – discussion and argument, and open-hearted listening to those who were not me (i.e., everyone), I came to understand just how different others were than me. And that my own values, however deeply held, simply could not serve as an index of what someone else knew and felt about the world.

This is perhaps the greatest possibility offered by public school, greater than basic skills training, job readiness, even Friday night football: the possibility to allow all who make up this community to see deeply into each other’s otherness – perhaps to realize, at core, that we are exactly the same in our passionate need to have our otherness understood and respected.

That’s why I support the teaching of The House of the Spirits, unequivocally, and the teacher who chooses to teach it. The book is an opportunity to have that kind of discussion, that kind of listening and understanding of each other. But I refuse to support teaching the book by making those who oppose it into cartoons of intransigence and closed-mindedness. (After all, it’s only a matter of time before this controversy makes national news, and the rest of the country remains completely willing to retell that story about who we are in the High Country. Can’t we be better to each other?)  I believe that school is where our students should – must – respectfully encounter, engage with, and come to understand points of view that differ profoundly from their own. And our larger community must be a place where we can do the same with each other. If I presume to have the only clear vision of what is valuable, I am as blind as my worst caricature of those who disagree with me.

I plan to attend the community-wide read-in and teach-in of The House of the Spirits ( 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Dec. 3 in Belk Library, Room 114, on ASU’s campus), and I hope you will too. I would be happy to organize another one in the common room of our excellent Public Library. I hope these events will be a chance for all of us to share the book and make our own judgment; share our own experience of reading and encounter of ourselves and each other. May we all go back to school, as we focus the energy this controversy has ignited. Focus it toward hearing, seeing, reading each other fully, perhaps for the first time.

the long game

Paper I started three years ago, then blogged here toward presentation last year, has finally found a publication home. Three years, people! Glad its subject wasn’t too ripped-from-the-headlines.

The long game: what this job is about. When was the last time I paid attention to anything for three years, even peripherally? Maybe this is what being a grown-up is, after all: keeping one’s eye on the ball for a long long time. While still choosing how best to manage the “petty, frustrating crap of life,”  while maintaining time to think about – attend to – what really matters within, despite, in harmony with it all. Please see David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon.

Actually, stop reading this: just go watch that. Have a nice day!

my friends and I have cracked the code

My friends and I have cracked the code
We count our dollars on the train
To the party

Probably the most chilling lines in Lorde’s monster single “Royals.” It’s a repudiation of a version of herself that she sees being sold to her. Cataloged in the chorus, a weaponized hook you’ll have lodged in your cranium after one listen:

But every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your timepiece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair

But despite the startling ease with which she reels off these totems of hiphop excess, it’s this moment of realization, stated declaratively as a mere fact of the nature of her engagement with the world, that changes everything from now on. We will celebrate who we are, not who you tell us to be. Our few dollars, our train, our party: not yours. Echoes of Johnny Rotten, asking his last audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Yes, the song says – but we’re not mad about it anymore. Living well is the best revenge.

This weekend my sons scooped me (and The New Yorker, by a day) with this tune. I heard it once through the earbuds – after-market ones with better bass response, thankfully, a key to appreciation of this joint – and was swept back to first hearing Adele’s big record under similar circumstances a few years back, and before that Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette, Veruca Salt, Sleater-Kinney, even Patti Smith. All the foregoers who temper my ears for a big female voice, a rumbly velvet one that winds around your legs like a cat.

What did Lorde listen to before laying this down? What are her – ahem – “influences”? A crazy question for a sixteen year-old maybe, but also not: our youth are more “influenced” than any generation before, the world in their pocket to peruse, reject, Like. Apparently, she’ll have none of that. She likes spare electronic beats, and the sonic cathedrals on “Royals” give her more space to wind around the pillars than anything since, I don’t know, Miles Davis’ “Tutu.” With it’s pared-down aesthetic and multi-tracked self-harmonies, it’s a Garageband song, maybe this generation’s answer to Springsteen in his own bedroom laying down the harrowing tracks only accessible from that apercu of remove. It’s a solo act, despite the solemn sidemen that apparently accompany her live.

I can’t stop thinking about the song, asking others to think about it with me. Trying to understand the power of the sweeping rejection of what an industry has given a young woman to love and respect and buy: the star maker machinery of the popular song, the rhetoric of the videos, the insistence that she (we) attend to the doings of the beautiful and rich, wait for their singles, follow their trysts and feuds. “We don’t care” – it’s repeated, in a falling figure into the fourth that gospel and blues reserves for the heightening of lyric tension: the place where things change, before redemption in the fifth. That comes, I think, with “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” not an aspirational statement so much as an insistence that their “Cadillacs” are bigger than an Escalade, perhaps because they are smaller.

Is anything so sweeping, so maddening, so terrifying as the dismissal of a teenager? “We don’t care,” insouciant and complete. “What are you rebelling against?” comes the question: “What have you got?” responds the new generation, impossibly far away already, perhaps irretrievable, or just gone to better shores. (And don’t start with calling this statement “inauthentic” because it had to partake in that same machinery to be released and promoted on this platform: it’s a bogus argument, especially as it’s leveled disproportionally against female artists, brilliantly stated here.)

She’s not the first to goof on the excesses of pop, hiphop especially. The Lonely Island said a lot here, to the young adults I work with, as did some of the more self-aware practitioners of the art since back in the day: Flava Flav, Tribe, Outkast, Salt’n’Pepa, a few clown princes and princesses here and there who get the power of the grotesque and comic as part of delivering the message (Forevah EVAH evah?). Gangsta brought the sternness, the seriousness, collapsed the gap between Signifyng and signifier (or, perhaps, changed the register to one a lot less forgiving of breaking character). That was the forebear of the present expectations of “gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom:” bleak, monolithic, one-note of so much of what comes over MTV and the radio. Repetitive compulsion that finally deadens the palate. Who can taste it when it’s so much of what we’re fed?

Not sure yet what to do with the growing cry against the song that it’s racist at core, dismissing an expressive language that’s impossible to unwind from the poverty and prejudice that informed the first hiphop assertions of wealth, power, money. Mainstream press is swarming the story – who doesn’t love a good race war – predictably giving more heat than light. Though I’ll agree with MSNBC that hiphop has jumped to mainstream culture too completely to continue to file it simply and neatly under “black.” I am not really persuaded there, seeing the original hiphop aesthetic of stealing the symbols of unattainable luxury to subvert them (literally breaking hood ornaments off Benzos) as more punk than appropriation. From Lorde’s remove – New Zealand (!?) – the white agony at regarding a black man in power that Coates explores so powerfully is perhaps tempered. And Jay-Z is not the President, though maybe the same anxieties about access to power – the same anger that underpins my white students when they try to understand affirmative action from the perspective of not getting the financial aid they need either – do obtain. Money is the new power.

Race doesn’t play the same way in the generation behind us. Of course the kids see race – I strive in my class every day to help future teachers understand and work against the treacherous reproduction of status quo that comes from affirming otherwise – but in some real way, their battles aren’t ours. SES plays so much harder as a personal entryway into understanding privilege with my overwhelmingly white students than race. And not because of whatever the rest of the world makes up about going to school in western North Carolina, being Southern, whatever story you might be making up about who “my students” are.*  It’s that their world is so much browner, so differently expressed, than ours was at the same age (check out the National Geographic’s awesome “Changing Face of America” photo essay on this.)

I do not think Lorde is talking back to hiphop’s performance of privilege as raced. To my ears, half a planet away, it’s just too remote from her world. She gets the marketing of it, the come-on of what she is supposed to care about, and says no. In this she’s twinning with my other darlings, Arctic Monkeys, whose fully-realized milieu gives a lot more to work with than Lorde’s stark sketches. But both dismiss inauthenticity as the most cardinal of sins. “Get off the bandwagon, put down the handbook,” the AMs say – “we don’t care,” tosses off Lorde, and if a teenager with a microphone doesn’t care, nothing – nothing – can save you from the dustbin.

This could probably all be said better (hoped to work in some of John Taylor Gatto’s critique of compulsory schooling as designed from the ground up to create a new consumer class), but there’s no time, and I need to get something off about it now before the moment passes. What do you think about the song, about the issues it raises? Really?

*Assumptions in turn informed by the rampant “redneckspoitation” boom on TV, Duck Dynasties and Honey Boo Boos and Handfishin’ and Turtlemen. That topic needs to wait for another day: but there’s more casual dismissal at the national level of who we are around here than Li’l Abner ever got away with, so you better recognize.

Thanks to allthingssd.com for image. NO image of the artist because photos of Lorde are everywhere, sheesh.

the analog kid meets the digital man (or, get off my lawn)

m13_PRO20_blk_6.1369408863(N.B. – This is going to be sloppy, but it’s a blog, not a paper, and I will continue to use it to work out stuff that’s not-ready-for-prime-time, with your indulgence. Also, if you read this through Facebook, you’ve probably noted that I am on a Facebook sabbatical these days! Which is serving me well. But I would still love to hear from you about this – or anything – through the comment section or email, osmond (at) appstate (dot) edu.)

So titled because I fear that’s the tone I am going to strike here: the crotchety old fart fussing about kids, and how back in the day … but that is not my intent.

What I want to do is figure out, really, what is going on with the way kids learn in the generation I am teaching and, further down, parenting, and what the role of pleasure is in that learning. Some of my colleagues are super excited about what kids’ interactions with computer games can help us understand about curriculum, and I think they are on to something – but that something feels like curiously less than what they say it is, or maybe more.

I think that the way we make and enjoy art has something to say here, because art is the thing we do that we don’t have to do: engage with beauty, balance, aesthetic satisfactions. Unless you are a filmmaker or rock star under studio/label contract trying to grind something out on deadline, art’s not work – yet we find time to be with it no matter what, even at the expense of other things. There is always time to do what we really want to.

Shouldn’t we want desperately to figure out how to bottle that genuine desire to engage and sprinkle it over the things we THINK kids should be engaging in as well?

And then at the core of the whole perplex is how kids nowadays don’t ride bikes the way we did when we were kids, and how that bothers me, and how I don’t understand why. Maybe that’s where I should start.

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When I was a kid I loved my bikes, and still remember each of them with pretty amazing clarity.

Eighth birthday: a yard sale find with outdated (now vintage) frame curlicues and additional struts gets macked out for me with a banana seat and a light that runs on the power of the spinning wheel and an odometer. Dad tries to explain the value of an odometer, and I am unconvinced. I do not want to know how far I have gone: I want to know how fast I am. I want to see a needle move, and the glacial pace of the odometer wheels turning does not satisfy, at all. “How far I was allowed to go” was the obsession: in the street, or just the sidewalk? To the end of the street? to the High’s, to Gillette’s Market, to buy Marathon bars and baseball cards at first, then litre-bottles of orange and grape Nehi? You could carry two on a bike, one in a bag slung over each handlebar; four empties (two and two) when returning them for the deposit. But it was tricky going: no turning to speak of, really, just balance and grit to get you there.

I am twelve: a friend agrees to sell me a bike he no longer needs. It is painted matte black, but has the characteristic piece of sheet metal in the front frame angle with a perfectly round hole in it that I associate with the coveted Mongoose brand. Mongoose and Diamondback: these were the only two brands that were worth spit in Rome, New York’s bicycle hierarchy, and I had neither. The banana seat frankenbike was now passé: I needed to trade up, and this is was my ticket in.

It came rideable, with second-rate parts, and I set to figuring out how to make the thing what I wanted it to be. I had a bike repair manual and learned how the gears worked, how to make the action smoother and change the tires. I got some more appropriate handlebars, but the front fork looked all wrong: it had a graceful bend to it, not the sawed-off shotgun stubbiness that the cool kids’ bikes boasted. I couldn’t work out how to fix that – or the single handlebar joint that looked so puny next to my friends’ beefy double ones – but the Mongoose-brand pads I put on the thing made it pass, so I could join my friend at the vacant lot where they had cut jumps and banked turns into the dirt.

It was incredible to be out there tear-assing around that track – getting (what felt like) crazy air, the occasional fall leading to scuffs and ripped pants and a little blood but never head trauma (it hadn’t been invented yet, maybe, and neither had helmets). I bent the cranks from landing on them too hard, learned to fix them. I do not want to exaggerate my handiness, but in that year I was probably the most mechanically savvy I have ever been in my life. Not because I really cared about it but because I needed it to work and only I could do what needed to be done. Coming home when the sun went down, hot and dirty and thoroughly blissed-out.

That bike became my ride to school, too – about a mile each way (just Google-Mapped it – sure felt like longer), and to friends’ houses, and to the woods behind the park (where I did NOT join in BB gun wars, but desperately wished to). With the bike and a little stamina and a modicum of geography, I could pace almost the entire ambit of my world under my own power, and largely on my own schedule, years before a car was even a possibility. My bike was power. I locked it up and took care of it, kept it out of the rain and the tires full.

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So why my bike reverie here? Why does it chap me that under all the porches of our kids’ friends sit beautiful bikes (Mongooses and Diamondbacks, real ones sometimes) and no one ever rides them?

Many of us in the High Country live at the top of pretty steep hills, and dropping down to the main road and pressing further afield would inevitably mean a ten-minute climb with / walking of one’s bike back up the hill, and apparently that’s sufficiently prohibitive. But what’s at most two miles away from anyone’s house seems so worth it to me: the General Store (much cooler than the High’s), the school, the gorgeous park, each others’ houses. All these kids could have any of that whenever they want, on their own schedule, free of their parents’ willingness to drive, in exchange for a mildly rough five-minute walk at the end. But it does not seem a good trade-off to any of them. No one ever rides anywhere.

It’s on us too, on all the parents. We are all concerned about the narrowness of the country two-lane, the dramatic blind turns, snakes and bears, drunks in pickup trucks: who knows what could happen out there. This from a generation of grown-ups who routinely remember being turned loose in the evening by their parents sans cell phone or even flight plan, told only to be back (this is universal) “when the street lights came on.” What gives? What has changed?

Please know that my kids, and their friends, do not want for adventurous spirit. They are bolder than I was, from one POV. As I drove a bunch of them home last night from a birthday celebration (at a contained fun pavilion – laser tag, video games, bowling, no sharp corners anywhere, secure perimeter, natch) I had the precious opportunity to be invisible and hear them revel with each other in the rich history of their shared virtual exploits, while each simultaneously played a “casual game” on their Apple device of choice and offered periodic updates on their progress. Most of the talk was about Minecraft, the low-res MMORPG that even I know about.

Or thought I did (digital Legos, right)? I had no idea. The detailed strategy and passionately-remembered victories were Homeric, as was the pathos of battles remembered, won, lost. If I can remember – apologies if they ever read this for mangling the specificity and detail, I am a stranger in a strange land here:

  • So I was in a boat in the middle of the ocean, no land as far as I could see in any direction – it was impossible to get to land from there, from the island that Jim and I built out there for that very reason, so no-one could find it – and I had built a defensive bulwark on the island shaped like my head, made out of wool – I had nothing else to do so I just did it (So did I! offers another (???)), and my eyes were gun nests and the mouth was a cave – so I am out in the middle of the ocean in my boat, trying to get to land, and suddenly here comes this other boat, floating along completely empty, and it just drifts by me and disappears.
  • Kyle, when I got to our outpost you had finished building the stairs, but they looked completely wrong! The wood was completely the wrong color, it doesn’t match any of the rest of the house. (But that’s the only wood I had, protests Kyle weakly. No matter: aesthetic foul committed, ten points from Hufflepuff.)
  • And then I found this amazing sniper perch in the original world, from back in the day? (I think he actually said “back in the day.”) And this was when you could get rank just by saying “oh, I am not a noob don’t-know-what-I-am-doing guy, really,” and they would just give it to you? Anyway, I would just sit there and pick off all these Diamond warriors, and they wouldn’t know what was going on. It was awesome until one day this whole troop of Diamonds came and one looked up and saw me; he had a platinum bow with darkness AND invincibility AND roundhouse kick, and with one shot I was dead.
  • For a few days we built underwater tunnels out of glass, just because we had the time, out in the middle of the ocean, and no one could find us, it was awesome – and then I went back after a few days and (my sister) had built…a PIRATE SHIP on the surface, right above it! (Everyone DYING laughing, who could be so stupid?) So of course we got found right away: the Ninjaz came in through the bottom of the ship, and everything got looted and destroyed. (Round of murmured commiseration: the Ninjaz, poor man, they are some tough customers.)

Do you hear it? A spirit of adventure and curiosity and industry and ambition that puts my remembered exploits to shame with its detail, its intrigue, its strategy, its confidence and power. The stories were already lore, becoming more so in the telling as the sun set out the Honda’s windows and we labored up the mountain.

These are the moments that will define these kids in affiliation and differentiation with the people around them; these are their Mongooses, their dirt tracks, their BB gun fights. And it is all in their heads, and on screens, mediated by invisible servers and experienced alone in darkened bedrooms.

I do not mean to suggest their whole world is digital or imaginary. These same guys play hours of soccer together and Ripstik around the park on Friday nights and still clobber each other with Nerf swords. But the seamless flow between the real and the virtual is stunning: the passionate commitment to the unreal as much as to the real, to the created 3D hideaway as much as the contested goal on Saturday morning.

None of my students get my Neuromancer references any more: William Gibson perhaps losing his SF credibility as the world actually becomes a place where we are “jacked in” to virtual connection as seriously as we are real ones, or more. I’ll check it anyway: but for a bristling nest of memory sticks under their right ear, my lost boys are become digital men, making their own Pleasure Islands and Skull Rocks out there, somewhere, in the interwebbed ether.

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So what I am saying here? That I think there is something awry with the sublimation of childhood’s ambition and energy and wanderlust into digital exploits. That I think something has been lost when our kids stay in and log on instead of going out. Yeah, I do.

I have a suspicion that what is lost is somehow imbricated with the abundance of what is “accessible,” sort of, online. That the rampant lack of curiosity about the way the actual world works that my colleagues and I perceive among our students is connected with their native knowledge that they’ll be able to access the Youtube video that tells them about it when they need it, and so don’t need to concern themselves with it prior. In one way, this is the promised dream of technology in education: when the propositional knowledge base is immediately accessible online, students will be freed up from having to learn it and, therefore, will be able to spend their curricular time on developing the process and conceptual chops: the “critical thinking” that everyone crows about. But that’s not what seems to be happening. In fact, quite the opposite: lack of need to know seems to be turning into lack of curiosity. And lack of urge to get up and go do something about it. Really, why bike the hill when I can get what I would be looking for right here?

Gaming offers so many opportunities to tap into the energy of doing what we want to do in the service of doing what we need to do. It offers chances to make mistakes in low-risk, high-rep situations – trial and error, an intrinsic part of artmaking and puzzle-solving. Games offer built-in reward that incentivizes perseverance, and the networked ones offer social affirmation and the benefits of propinquity and joint mutual activity that we have known matter for decades but can’t seem to make curricular priorities. Maybe games are a way in for those important aspects of teaching.

But is what has been lost worth what has been gained? And does virtual adventure do for our kids what real-life adventure does?

This is way bigger than what I have started to think through here. It’s not just about computers and bikes. It’s connected with overprotection of our kids by my generation’s parenting – though, in our defense, we also protect more because we are the first generation to live consciously with the legacy of abuse that we were not protected from. The world was never safe, and we wish our kids a more nurturing passage through childhood than many of us had. It’s connected with an exponentially greater role in our childrens’ lives of a broadly-advertised version of childhood to which they conform their expectations – and we ours, of them and of ourselves.

So: how do we take advantage of technology to help our kids cultivate confidence, self-efficacy, intrepidness, self-sufficiency, while saving them the pain of the mistakes visited upon us? That’s all I am trying to figure out. That’s all. What do you think?

Thanks to Mongoose for most excellent image of most excellent bike. 

the thousand natural shocks

This is nice: an essay of mine was selected as winner of a writing contest sponsored by Et Alia Press. It’s about my scars, what they have to say about the caring professions of teaching and doctoring, how they call us to more compassionate practice. The anthology should be published sometime next year.

Gentle reader, my apologies: very little blogging from me this summer! Been working on other projects. More to come.

an open letter

Dear Morning Edition:

Claudio Sanchez lost all credibility with me Tuesday June 18 when he decided to air a straight story about the dishonest and misleading hack piece that the National Council on Teacher Quality dropped that morning. A quick look at the internet should have told him better: Deans of Education, real national thought leaders, and the attentive public agree on the harm wrought by this transparently ideological attack on teacher education. A quick look at the NCTQ’s board would confirm that it’s a right-wing scare machine taking aim yet again at the institution of public schooling in order to supplant it with market-based reforms and business-friendly privatization schemes, all wrapped in ostensible concern for the children (or, in this case, the hapless first-year teachers supposedly being exploited by teacher educators’ laziness and refusal to “evolve”). And the Geraldo-style “gotcha” bit with the Dean of ETSU’s College of Education was way beneath the standards I’ve come to expect from NPR.

As a teacher educator and a citizen who believes in public education, I’m appalled. If Sanchez can’t vet stuff better, please replace him at the Education Desk with someone who can. The stakes are way too high for this nonsense.

Chris Osmond PhD

currere as narrative pedagogy

Here’s a plenary paper I gave this weekend at the annual meeting of the International Association for Human Caring. I may have played the history a little loose to make the point to a non-curriculum audience, but I think the larger argument stands: medicine IS doing a better job than we are of focusing on the role of individual stories in caregiving, and the “black leather jacket” boys remain in full sway. Looking forward to some discussion of this one from my colleagues among their ranks. Enjoy your summer!

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you today, though I am a stranger in a strange land. I believe I am the only educator attending this conference who is primarily concerned with K-12 school settings. Although I have spent many years in healthcare settings, my caring context is the school, not the hospital. Nonetheless, the extraordinary nurses I share the dais with today have helped me understand the textures of practice in my world, as I have theirs. We have so much to say to each other.

Today I would like to open our time together by trying for the first time to explain the ways I think the practice of narrative lets the worlds of education and healthcare inform each other.

First, I’ll tell you a story from my discipline about how we have decided what matters most in caring educational practice, and how I think we got it wrong. Then I’ll explain how the use of narrative in healthcare settings has given what education had lost back to me. And finally I’ll suggest what this evolving nexus means for both of our practices.

I’ll start with a story of internecine conflict. Sayre’s Law dictates that the reason academic battles are so fierce is because the stakes are so appallingly low. But I feel the stakes were very high in this fight, dealing as it did with the very core of why we do what we do in school. So let me sing you the song of my people. I think you will recognize the tune.

Almost fifty years ago, one of our most audacious curriculum dreamers, Joseph Schwab, pronounced the field of curriculum studies “moribund.” Stasis was attributed to unquestioned applications of single-perspective theories to education. To revitalize our work – to make ourselves more than simple doers of curriculum prepared for us and assessors of whether or not we had met established objectives – Schwab called for renewed interest in “the practical,” by which he meant a deliberative, interdisciplinary process that was attentive to reality: situated, relevant, responsive to experience.

In the wake of this call, curriculum studies was “reconceptualized” as a site to critically engage the values and practices that describe school in our culture. Two main strands of reconceptualization emerged: first, a materialist critique, which embraced neomarxist understandings of the role of power in education as underlying the observed tendency of institutions to replicate the existing social order. And second, a phenomenological, autobiographical, and psychological critique, which sought to understand curriculum as currere, a “course run” by successive retrenchings in one’s own experience and projection of that experience into future action.

Currere understands curriculum as chronological, situated, a constant reinterpretation of past experiences that reorients us toward what is not yet the case. These two forces struggled for a few years for ideological and epistemological dominance of the newly reborn field, and finally the materialist critique ascended. Gradually, critical curriculum work became synonymous with neomarxist analysis of power, while the more reflective work of currere paced the field’s edges through its own journals and conferences.

I trained in the currere tradition, and so confess to having personal skin in this game. But what most interests me for this audience is why things went the way they did – and that “why” might ring some bells. Because the materialist critique was outward-focused: concerned with structures (even through post-structuralist lenses), with social justice and the end to hegemonic maintenance of existing power relations as its clear goal. It was a muscular critique, and tended to be masculinist and even sexy in its rhetoric: a memorable skirmish caricatured its practitioners as “the marxists, who identified autobiography with bourgeois idealism, a retreat to interiority by those unwilling to don their leather jackets and storm the barricades, or at least picket General Dynamics.”

Currere, on the other hand, suffered dismissal as not only bourgeois, but navel-gazing, irrelevant, esoteric. To stake a claim for the role of individual experience and dyadic connection in curriculum was to be consigned to the basement with the other misfit toys: to be the shadow. Camille Paglia drew the dichotomy beautifully in Sexual Personae between “apollonic” and “chthonic” impulses in literature: the first clean, visible, attainable, the other hidden, murky, imprecise.

So the critical day in education was won by what was observable and measurable: psychologic, phenomenologic, and autobiographical perspectives were abjected. To work in education meant either joining a mainstream educational milieu that was as concerned with setting objectives and measuring their attainment as ever, or an equally well-boundaried critical stance that tried to dismantle it through analysis of the observable workings of class and power. By disposition and training mine became the voice of a minority report, and my work the writing of an unread amicus brief.

You know: of course this is how things played out. Common sense always feels better dealing with the observable. The high modern notion of care, in education and health, values noting what is observable and making coherent, replicable responses to it.

And here’s where your story crosses mine. Healthcare strives to manage quality outcomes through measurement, and its critics tend to focus on observable structural impediments to quality care, both administrative (cost and waste management, handwashing checklists) and social (race and ethnicity, language barriers, “cultural competence” efforts, etc). Medicine – the most scientific of caring practices – is way out front on observing and responding to the objective data. Stories are secondary, nice-to-have not have-to-have.

But when I joined the faculty of a medical school for five years and went searching for other caring practitioners who shared my conviction that interiority and self-reading were essential parts of sustainable practice, I was amazed to find that medicine also fostered a rich subculture of story-telling and story-listening in the name of compassionate practice.

I found the literature and medicine movement, most notably Rita Charon’s articulate and passionate argument for a concept of caring practice as requiring “narrative competence.” Also the Maine Humanities Council’s “Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare” movement, which supported reading groups of physicians, nurses and other providers that allowed them to read together stories of human suffering and caring and thereby find voice to share their own. I was amazed to find that the doctors and the nurses knew as much about honoring stories as my people did – and more. To be sure, the narrative impulse in health care haunted the dominant version as well. But it was a much hardier ghost, and getting stronger by the day.

The contours of my field’s twinned stories are limned in Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller.  You probably know that Frank advanced three modes of understanding suffering: the “chaos” narrative, with its obliterative “no-time” of endless suffering; the “restitution” narrative, which seeks to remedy suffering by overwhelming chaos with order, managing experience according to scientifically-verified algorithms that identify clear problems, then regulate and solve them. And finally, Frank’s critique of the “restitution” narrative’s tendency to do violence to the selfness of the sufferer, abandoning her at the moment her symptoms do not match the algorithms or her suffering is not healed by their fixes. He offers the “quest narrative” as an articulation of a caring practice dedicated to hearing and witnessing the unique qualities of individual suffering; as a way to walk the path of illness with the sufferer.

Here was the deepest hope of currere as I longed to practice it in my own work, and to see it practiced in the work of my students. Aspiration for communion in care that heals both parties by letting their stories meet each other out on the field beyond right and wrong. And I had to come to medicine to see it articulated with a passion my own field had disavowed. It was both an acknowledgment of the co-creative nature of healing communion, and a way to articulate education work as also healing, as a site of care.

The fruits of this narrative nexus between healthcare and education are only beginning to flower; my colleagues will share some of the insights emerging from our shared inquiry over the last three years. In closing, I’ll preview three of the most striking.

1. Institutions are not external to us; institutions are us. I mourn for our culture’s wounding institutions: schools, hospitals, and prisons, each with their own fiendish Procrustean beds of regulation that create habitus of self-control. These are all sites of trauma, but school most tragically, as emotional, mental, and intellectual damage is unthinkingly wrought upon students even in apparently benign classroom settings (to say nothing of egregious physical and sexual wounds, all too commonplace as well). I think healthcare is working harder than education right now to name the ways, in Ivan Illyich’s words, that “the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structures that house it:” that the regulating, impersonal, measure-it-to-manage-it way of being in hospitals is maleficent as surely as the rising tide of outcomes-based assessment was in schools.

And the solution to both, it seemed, has to do with a recommitment to finding the individual story in the data; to shaping institutional life to the present need of the patient or student by being that kind of caregiver. Foregrounding narrative gives us permission in our own practice to “talk back” to dominant versions of how we are to be and upon what index the value of our efforts are to be reckoned. The ways that medicine taught me to use narrative – and my grasp of the stakes if I don’t – have shaped the way I practice education.

2. The personal is not merely personal. Professional empathy is not the same thing as personal empathy: to practice as a caring professional is to be “in role,” and to accept the essentially divided nature of our professional attention. As Terry Holt notes,

As I lean against the wall, tears are coursing down my face. I am being very quiet about it, but in a very quiet way I am sobbing as freely as I know how. And meanwhile I am thinking: If this is over by twelve-thirty, I’ve got a chance of getting lunch before I replace the art line in twenty-four. The tears are streaming down my face, and I am utterly sad, haunted by memories of my father’s nearly identical death ten years before. But somewhere a voice is also thinking: Maybe today I can sign out by three.

This splitting of attention is not abandoning our patients in their need; rather, it is enabling us to actually give the best to care to all who are in our charge. This insight has deep consequences for the role of empathy in our preparation of caring professionals. In the New Yorker last week, Paul Bloom noted that natural empathetic responses might cloud our professional judgment about where the greatest need lies. Wondering at the warehouse filled with unrequested plush animals that stands in Newtown, Connecticut today, the millions of dollars that rolled into that affluent community, while twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, he reached for a similarly professional deployment of empathy:

 Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family – that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same values of those we love. That’s not a call for a world without empathy…the problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognize what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow feeling needed to convert intelligence into action. But a spark may be all that’s needed.

 Story-making and story-witnessing is where we stay in touch with that spark, and cultivate our capacity to catch fire. We need a more complex notion of empathy that both meets the world’s bottomless needs and gives us a structure within which to make complex prioritization decisions.

3. Self-care is other-care. To ably hear another’s story – to be capable of leaning-in to witness and hold another’s experience in your attending – requires commensurate self-care. In our institution’s Honors seminar on “Narrative and the Caring Professions,” we bring together future teachers, nurses, physicians, dentists, veterinarians, and allied health students in a joint exploration of stories of caring and professional formation. As we discuss their perceptions of the nature of the professions that await them, so many of them equate their capacity to care with their tolerance for self-denial: “I won’t have time to eat or go to the bathroom until 1:00;” “I’m not in it for the money, anyway”; “I’m just there to love those kids up.” Each of these statements echoes with the way that status is assigned and taken away in our culture to caring professionals, and they reveal a tendency among students to set themselves up as the unfailing source of energy and nurture: a tendency we know predispose young professionals to burnout. How best to support these students in treasuring the impulse to give and love that brings them to this work, while also exercising the self-protection and self-care that will guard them against exhaustion, exploitation, and compassion fatigue?

We start with the sharing of stories of others who have walked their path. Body of Work by Christine Montross and Educating Esme are two autobiographical narratives of professional formation – the first through a year-long gross anatomy class, the second through a first year of teaching. What vivid stories these authors tell of the importance of self-care and the consequences when it’s not practiced! And as we discuss their stories, we see the uncanny capacity of discussing someone else’s story to draw out one’s own. Students are amazed, then grateful, to see how their own profession’s deepest values can be better articulated by a member of another. Interdisciplinarity becomes the gateway to a deeper understanding of sustainable compassion as a human practice, not merely a professional one.

So, thank you, colleagues in caring, for teaching me my own work better than my own field could; for helping me reconceive an energetic narrative practice that embraces the ambiguous and the subjective as the engines of practice, not their obstacles. I am in your debt, and will work to strengthen the connections across our fields that our small collaboration has begun – to the good of both, and most of all for the students who place in us their confidence that we will train them up in the way they should go. Thank you.