What’s Next, What’s Done, What’s Good

little shopYou know, I am really getting to the point where I don’t care if what I have to say about school sounds smart, or even if it is particularly compelling or convincing. I only care that I know that what I say is true: the truest, truest true that it can be. Because if we are going to be in the business of Making Other People – of consciously, deliberately climbing into their lives, daily, with the express intent of changing who they are into something new – well, we had better be damn sure we think we know what we are doing, and be able to explain it. And it better make sense. Our reasons for doing what we do had better be the most excellent ones we can come up with, and they best be aimed at the absolutely most important outcomes we can aspire to.

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Tonight was closing night of “Oklahoma!”, Watauga High School’s spring musical. It was astounding: the leads all still had voices, the extras were all still in character, the jokes still landed and, incredibly, not a light or sound cue was dropped, that I could tell. I was a wreck through their opening night, sympathetically, because for a few years I directed the plays at The Field School, back when I was a full-time high school teacher, and still remember what it takes to bring together a big production like that. How many moving parts, most of which don’t become visible until you run the whole thing for the first time a week before you open and all the seams you didn’t know had to be there show themselves, unraveling.

Every spring at Field brought Studio Day in late April. Field believed that every student needed to develop “all three legs of the stool”, as our founder described it: academic, athletic, aesthetic. Which meant that every student, every year, carried a full course load, but also played a sport and participated in a studio or performing arts experience. So for the arts faculty – some of the finest artists and educators I have ever known – spring always meant bringing everybody’s work to its ending point, the point where it was ready to show. Everybody crashed boards in the last weeks: students were coming in early and staying late in the dark rooms, at the potters’ wheels, in the paint studio to finish their stuff. I helped found the jazz band my first year there, which always performed – and, as I mentioned, the musical would play at least once on Studio Day too, as I remember. So the amount of stuff to bring in on deadline was immense.

But the day itself was overwhelmingly beautiful – beauty to stop you dead where you stood, wherever you looked. Every inch of every wall of the place showed something gorgeous: paint, photo, poetry, clay. We mingled and drank punch and listened to the jazz band outside on the astroturf and wondered at how these kids could be so much, do so much – give us so much more to see.

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Among the truest things I know about education is that it is on us, as teachers, to help our students learn three things:

  • What they are to do next,
  • When their work is done, and
  • How their work is good.

I learned to talk about these three essential outcomes mostly from wonderful Elliot Eisner at Stanford, and could (should) footnote it as such, but have probably changed it up a little through my own experience. As it turns out, the arts are among the best realms in which to help students learn these three things, but they can be learned just about anywhere else as well. And, I regret to report, that students learning these three things in school nowadays is far more the exception than the rule – and where it’s happening, there works a teacher worth her weight in gold.

What are we to do next? To teach is to assert that this thing that I am about to draw your focus to is worth doing. On its own merits, and because of what else it will allow you to do; because of how knowing it has enriched my own life, and because as you learn it it will enrich yours too; because it will prepare you to better engage the experience that awaits you, to make sense of it, survive it, and thrive in it. This is the core assertion of making curriculum and embarking upon it with students: This Is Worth Doing Now.

The teacher rarely teaches this kind of discernment explicitly, but it is all over her practice. Amazing Ms. Miller, at Watauga, did it the moment she announced that the show that year was to be “Oklahoma!” She knew she had the four male and two female leads she’d need to pull it off; she knew she could open up the group numbers to include the hundred who would come out wanting to be part of it; she knew the show’s payoffs and anticipated how they would play to this town, in this county. As they worked the show up, she and her colleagues helped the students learn what to attend to first, and how: the lines, the songs, the character development.

Eisner notes that only in the arts do we develop the discernment to see how our last brushstroke on the canvas changed the overall work, and to let that discernment inform what we do next, all in the “absence of rule,” as he says (real painting is not paint by numbers). In putting on a show, students need to have the opportunity to feel the way their confidence grows by a master teacher supporting them in developing first just this skill, which leads to the capacity to do further things.

The whole experience of putting up a show – drama, musical, marching band, orchestra, ballet, improv comedy – is a process of engaging right-sized tasks, in the right order. Expert teachers facilitate the process so that students suddenly find themselves competent to do what the show asks of them; they accomplish this by asking them to stretch enough to feel it, enough to grow, but not so much as to break. Before we dismiss the extraordinary skill set a teacher must possess to pull this off, we can probably all remember a time in school when our teacher didn’t have it. When the expectations put upon us were unrealistic, or the project we were asked to work on was unworthy of our time and energy, or when the composite elements we needed to master weren’t adequately explained or staged out. The negative experience highlights the wonder of the positive one, doesn’t it?

When is our work done? This question seems a little nuts: the work is done when the show opens, right? Last Thursday night, for the Watauga cast. When Studio Day arrives. “It might not be done, but it is due!” Certainly working within external constraints of time and resources is a huge part of putting it together. The teacher must choose tasks that are doable with what is available to offer.

But it’s only part of what this principle means for teaching. Teachers must help students come to understand when their own work is done: when they have done all they can on a project, learned an aspect to the best of their ability. Sometimes it means pushing a student beyond what he considers good enough. (I’ll be forever grateful for the chorus teacher who cast me in a lead singing role in the middle school musical because she heard I had a voice, then hollered at me in practice to “sing already!” until I got enough air behind it to believe her.) Sometimes it means unwinding a perfectionist student so she can get out of her own way, silence the critic that tied her in knots before you met her and is still yammering away inside her head.

In either case, it’s about giving the student control over the work. Eisner notes that a painter must be able to judge when the work has achieved a desired effect (or an unanticipated effect that is more desirable than the one she set out to accomplish – another unique aspect of the arts is that goals can change is response to emerging opportunities). No one tells the painter, or the artist, when a work is done, ready to show or share. It’s a capacity that we must develop ourselves – and we learn how to by watching and hearing those more experienced do just that, for ourselves and for others. Ms. Miller had to help her actors come to understand when their work was as complete as it could be – which is not the same thing as giving yet another round of nitpicking notes about what could be better. Ceaselessly revealing faults doesn’t build capacity to create; it warps it, turns expression into a cautious composite creature that just wants to avoid being criticized ever again.

When is our work good? Is the painting good because it is praised by the famous critic? Is the play good because all the people who are not our parents laughed at its jokes and stood and applauded at the end? Well, yes – to begin with.

A sublime moment happens in education when work stops being a school thing and starts being a thing thing: an endeavor that has value outside the artificial world of assignments and grades, expectations and assessments and feedback loops that make us accountable to do better next time. Tonight’s play was not a school thing. It was enabled by school, supported by school – it even happened IN a school – but it was MORE than school. People came who did not have a kid in the cast. People came because they wanted to be moved by a true soprano singing beloved songs that were meaningful to some in the audience before the singer was born. People came to “Oklahoma!” because they wanted to root for Curly to get his girl in the end and survive Jud’s thuggery; even if they had seen the show a dozen times, they wanted to go on that trip with someone else. And in the first moments of “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning!” the crowd realized tonight’s Curly was rock solid, and they could stop worrying about him and believe him, make his struggles their own. I felt the room relax as they realized this was a real show, not a school show. They could laugh when something was funny and applaud when something was beautiful – not because they’d be embarrassed for the kids up there if they didn’t.

Kids smell phony. They know pity applause, and despise it. More to the point, they smell a phony teacher – they know when they are being turned out to make a teacher look good, to burnish a resume, and they hate it. That kind of teaching teaches cynicism and manipulation; it feeds off of fear and encourages abuse. Kids need teachers who are manifestly at peace with themselves, who live in joy, and whose joy is, in some way, linked to their choice to spend their lives negotiating connections between an endeavor they love and a constantly-rotating group of young people who are there to learn to love it too.

Kids need this deepest, most intimate lesson from their teachers, even if they never ask for it and teachers never plan to give it. They give it because it is the deepest and most vital lesson we ever teach: that “this is a way to be a happy adult.” We note that children see more of their teachers than their parents once they get to high school, but fail to remark on the real implications of this institutionalized fact. What are these adults showing them about adulthood? Are they dependent upon external validation to give their lives worth – their students’ grades, or their students’ approval? Or are they sourced in something deeper – something that is related to what they choose to teach, and how they choose to teach it? And THAT they choose to teach it? Are they whole adults who dedicate their lives to helping others find their own, and don’t count the cost – not because they are martyrs, but because extravagant giving and receiving is in fact the real economy of love, one that results in there always being plenty to go around?

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I am going to stop before enumerating the ways in which the path our public education system is currently on fails to make the truths I have affirmed here a priority. Even a casual student of contemporary american education reform can list some of the ways that teachers are, in fact, having the definition of their work constrained even as it needs to be growing; having their autonomy removed even as it needs to be enlarged. Can see how challenging, even impossible, it is for a contemporary public school teacher to find and strengthen her relation to her content, and to herself, that such a teaching requires, when so much of her energy is consumed by administrative overload and quantification of that which cannot be quantified. When the value of her work is increasingly reduced to a value-added test score that is taken to indicate whether or not she has exceeded, met, or failed to meet expectations. As I have heard said, you can’t fatten a pig by building a more expensive scale. Never could.

Rather, I want to thank and honor the teachers who pull off such remarkable moments: peak experiences where the students and those fortunate enough to witness them know that their work has transcended school, even as it makes school so much better than it “has to be.” I am so grateful I’ve been able to teach with such extraordinary colleagues, and been part of the journey of so many wonderful students so far. It’s such an honor and a privilege to have more to do.

Image taken backstage in 1997, closing night of The Field School’s production of Little Shop of Horrors. Shing-a-ling, what a creepy thing to be happening! I love you guys.

Why Teach the Humanities in Education?

I’ve been invited to participate on a university panel today entitled “Why Teach the Humanities?,” and this is what I’ve prepared to share. It’s a bit of a jeremiad, for sure – but it’s what I am seeing right now, and some of what I am doing about it in my teaching.

I have been on paternity leave this semester, and blogging energy has mostly been spent on our adorable baby boy! I hope to be posting more regularly soon. Thanks for your interest, gentle reader.

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I am going to assume that most of you already understand the value of the humanities to scholarship, and of humanistic values, generally, in learning. Since you are already convinced, I am going to use my time to let you in on what it means to make such a case right now in my field: education.

In education, we love to say that teaching is an “art and a science.” And we usually put big air quotes around both words as we state this, then lean back with a satisfied look, as if we have “really said something there.”

This makes me nuts, because it seems we are saying very little, and not what we think we are saying. What I think we are trying to convey when we say that teaching is ”an art and a science” is that there are elements of teaching that are serious, data-driven best practices, but that there are also elements of teaching that are personal, high-touch, affective, and beautiful. What we are really doing is trying to make sure you understand that we are both serious and sensitive: that we are to be respected, not to be trifled with, but that we also don’t care about esteem and prestige if it gets in the way of connection with young people. (You’ll note that, like most psychological complexes, what we are saying isn’t really about you at all – it’s about our own insecurities, in the academy and in the culture generally.)

But the truth is that, even as we say “art” and “science,” and lean back, etc., we increasingly don’t really believe our own cant. The truth is that we are far more on the “science” side of things right now. As a discipline, we have believed the politically-driven fiction that student success is completely about individual teacher effectiveness, not poverty, and have dutifully applied ourself to making sure that everything we do can be demonstrated to those who audit our work incessantly as data-driven, committed to accountability, and deadly serious.

This data-fetish, of course, is also a fiction (and a reductive version of “science,” to boot, for which I apologize to my friends in the sciences). Teaching and learning are immensely complex, even alchemical acts, and our insistence on reducing their results to quantifiable, rubrick-ed outcomes, which in turn can be benchmarked based on previous performance, strains credulity. Most of the rest of the developed world scratches its head at our national educational folly right now, before in large part adopting it as the new order.

But the emperor has no clothes. And I wonder sometimes, my colleagues, if your concerns about the undergrads you presently teach – that they are only focused on grades; that they throw your syllabi back at you as accountability weapons to keep you from expecting more of them than you said you would; that they exhibit rampant incuriosity, even as the world’s knowledge sits waiting in their smartphones – are not really the chickens coming home to roost. They are only managing learning they way we taught them to, after all, way before they ever met you.

The humanistic side of education – the part that concerns itself seriously with exploring complex and ambiguous issues, learning from the past, and admitting the whole range of human experience and sense in the quest to prepare people to live a life, not just find a job – well, we haven’t seen that part for a while in K-12 education. We are buried under administrative oversight and accountability expectations, hog-tied by impoverished notions of workplace readiness and economic panic. Accountability is our favorite word, really: that pale shadow of responsibility that is left over when autonomy and passion have been elided.

Yes, things are all “science” over here right now. We are filled with fear, and in fear, we grasp for things that we can know, and show we know. A very short list of things.

All this is why the humanities remain an essential part of my practice right now, even more urgently than they were when I came to Appalachian five years ago.

I teach future teachers about the impact of social realities on school, and I use fiction, poetry, and memoir to help them develop the empathy for those not like them that is an essential precondition for actually knowing what to do with difference in the classroom.

We read Charles Baxter’s perfect short story “Gryphon” as a way into discussing the social expectations made of the teacher and the risks and payoffs of pushing against the lines.

We read Howard Nemerov’s stunning poem “September, The First Day of School” as a way to begin to grasp the enormity of school’s role in our culture, the endless cycle in which we participate as we take our place in maintaining an apparent banality that, nonetheless, forms and determines lives.

We read Dinaw Mengestu’s gorgeous “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” – not a school novel, but a novel about precious interactions between older and younger humans, the needs and abundances shared both ways between us as we all try to navigate a culture that is always, to some extent, foreign.

In my education classes, literature helps find the space in-between the ideas and the lived realities we incessantly hammer home. It’s the air that lets my students breathe – not by giving them a pleasant break from all that policy talk, but rather by engaging their whole subjectivities in a renewed engagement with this social practice of school, the institution that they thought they knew so well as to not need to really look at it ever again.

This year, I’m reworking my entire course to build around Dana Goldstein’s unprecedented new retrospective of American education, “The Teacher Wars.” I am committing to approaching the study of teaching historically, as anodyne to a policy world that would have us believe education is ahistorical; that ours are the first leaders to suggest that merit pay, or redistricting, or eliminating teacher tenure are ways to approach the intractable social issues that always seem to end up at the schoolhouse door first. I am convinced that a disciplined engagement with where we have been will help us grok more fully where we might go; that reading ourselves into what is past will help us place ourselves into what we shall now do.

I use literature elsewhere as well, most notably in my honors seminar on sustainable practice for caring professionals, where we gather future doctors, social workers, dentists, therapists, teachers and nurses to explore the common dilemmas of rendering effective care in underresourced, high-pressure environments. We seek to learn how to thrive in these professions, not just survive them – and, no surprise, we find that humanistic practices of making and receiving stories are essential to the development of an empathy that will sustain through a long career.

But it’s the relevance of humanities to the preparation of future teachers that burns brightest to me today. As I said, over in the College of Ed, we are losing not just our humane-ness, but our humanity itself, as the new common sense about teaching becomes all science and no art.

So I teach the humanities in education because education is perhaps the most humanistic endeavor we can pursue, save only the making of other humans. And I believe that, as the widening gyre finally tightens – as it will eventually, I hope and trust – my field will come again to understand their power, and the ultimate purpose of our work. Thank you.

Image from Brick Row Book Shop.

wake up

I gave this little paper at a conference in fall 2013 and don’t think I’ll do more with it right now, at least not in its present form. Though the ideas at its core remain some of the most vital I know for putting education on a profoundly different path than the one we’re on. The beauty part is that the change it implies isn’t institutional, but individual. Institutions are never good at something this radical, and this subtle. You need teachers.

The New Year always brings to mind a great 1988 Mecano song, in part:

Y aunque para las uvas hay algunos nuevos
a los que ya no están echaremos de menos
y a ver si espabilamos los que estamos vivos
y en el año que viene nos reímos.

Which I’ll give roughly as:

Even though there are some new folks here for the grapes this year,

And we miss those who have left us,

Let’s see if we can wake ourselves up, all of us who ARE here!

And in the next year, laugh a little more.

The Spanish eat grapes at midnight tonight, one for each bong of the clock, which makes for a full mouth and an appropriately silly way to get a new year underway. Worthy sentiments for a new beginning: fullness, silliness, a willingness to “espabilarse” however you can. I wish them to all of you. Happy New Year.

I’m helpless before the Arctic Monkeys’ tune “Fake Tales of San Francisco“: I can’t stop thinking about it, suspecting it has something urgent to teach me about pleasure in pedagogy, and the cultural moment I share with my students on their path to becoming teachers.

Fake Tales of San Francisco
Echo through the room
More point to a wedding disco
Without a bride or groom

There’s a super cool band yeah
With their trilbies and their glasses of white wine
And all the weekend rock stars in the toilets
Practicing their lines

I don’t want to hear you (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you no (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you no (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you
I don’t want to hear you

Fake Tales of San Francisco
Echo through the air
And there’s a few bored faces in the back
All wishing they weren’t there

And as the microphone squeaks
A young girl’s telephone beeps
Yeah she’s dashing for the exit
Oh, she’s running to the streets outside
“Oh you’ve saved me,” she screams down the line
“The band were fucking wank
And I’m not having a nice time”

I don’t want to hear you (Kick me out, kick me out)
I don’t want to hear you no (Kick me out, kick me out)
Yeah but his bird thinks it’s amazing, though
So all that’s left
Is the proof that love’s not only blind but deaf

He talks of San Francisco, he’s from Hunter’s Bar
I don’t quite know the distance
But I’m sure that’s far
Yeah, I’m sure that’s pretty far

Yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem
You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham
So get off the bandwagon, and put down the handbook
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

It’s certainly a more urgent text than several I have picked up and explored for a foothold in this issue. Happily, I am empowered by Greil Marcus and Dave Hickey to assert that sometimes a pop song is the clearest window you can look through; by Suzanne Langer and Elliot Eisner that there is irreducible meaning in aesthetic expression that cannot be accessed through other media (i.e., dry philosophy of ed conference papers); by my colleague Alecia Jackson, who affirms, after Rosi Braidotti, that “plugging” one text into another, however disparate their sources, invites a process of assemblage, a making and unmaking of a thing, a revealing of more to see.

So here I will plug this tasty pop song into my daily text of working with students as their paidagogos: their fellow traveler pointing out what to attend to and how, registering the interest and quality of engagement as I work my daily sleight-of-hand of trying to pass off the curriculum of what they should be interested in as something they are actually interested in. I’ll explore how the lens of “Fake Tales of San Francisco” shows me the role of pleasure in pedagogy – especially that unaccountable genus of pleasure that Lacan stylized as jouissance. And I’ll end with three specific aspects of pedagogy that we might foreground and valorize if we are intent upon bringing the power of pleasure to our work with students.

So: I characterized pedagogy as sleight-of-hand back there. Dissimulation, like my Mom sneaking zucchini into the spaghetti sauce because it was good for me and I wouldn’t eat it otherwise. That seems an uncharitable characterization of what we do, doesn’t it? Twisting Dewey, a little – his assertion that experience must pervade curriculum if relevance is to ensue. But for me, Dewey is in turn haunted by Marshall McLuhan, claiming that “anyone who makes a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” A provocateur, was McLuhan, always – here daring us to admit the relation between what we want to do and what we have to, and how “good teachers” work in the seam between the two. Dewey says that if what we bring as curriculum is authentically connected to student experience, then the struggle for relevance in the eyes of our students will no long be a struggle. And McLuhan asks us, really? Are you ready to go there? To admit the necessity, then, of acknowledging student and our own pleasure in curriculum; admit – meaning “to let in” – the power of pleasure to the classroom, in all its possible unruliness and unpredictability?

For I wish to suggest here that pedagogical pleasure is unruly by nature, and is best conceived thus. One of the insights Lacan offers in his distinction between plaisir and jouissance is that the former is the pleasure of satisfaction and meeting expectations, the latter that of excess, overflow, risk. We acknowledge and cultivate plaisir in pedagogy as a matter of course, I posit – certainly since Dewey, or Rousseau and Pestalozzi before him, all champions of a pedagogy that seeks to develop students who acknowledge the pleasures of their real lives and find a role for the energy of those pleasures to come to school. In well-tempered and regulated ways, we should note: pleasure always in service of curriculum. Remember it’s Dewey who writes a corrective book several years into the progressive revolution, asking teachers to cease the excesses of child-centered curriculum they were championing in his name, fearing the miseducative sequelae of too much enjoyment:

An experience may be immediately enjoyable and yet promote the formation of a slack and careless attitude; this attitude then operates to modify the quality of subsequent experiences so as to prevent a person from getting out of them what they have to give…experiences may be so disconnected from one another that, while each is agreeable or even exciting in itself, they are not linked cumulatively to each other. Energy is then dissipated and a person becomes scatter-brained. Each experience may be lively, vivid, and “interesting,” and yet their disconnectedness may generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits.

So there could be too much experience in education, apparently: so much that order is disrupted, with “disintegrated” results. Seriously “centrifugal” endeavors like Summerhill and other authentic efforts to follow the child are still taught in our teacher ed programs, but as oddities, “limit cases” of orthodox constructivism which prove the rule of the hybrid we tend to prefer.

But what might a pedagogy of jouissance look like? Peter Taubman gives us a few indications in his wonderful theorization of spontaneous, collective disobedience in early grades classrooms. He notes that jouissance is sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so much. This ambivalence – good fun or scary fun, or just plain scary – is at the core of the distinction.

Taubman works out no fewer than six definitions of Lacan’s formulation, with implications far beyond the psychological:

  1. It’s a kind of ecstasy tied to loss of control and rational consciousness, a sublime that stops language and desire;
  2. It’s the paradoxical satisfaction from pursuing an eternally unsatisfied desire, or a pleasure of repetition;
  3. It’s the pleasure that results from a transgressive act because of its transgressiveness, pleasure in proportion to the consequence one must suffer because of it;
  4. It’s a realm where the normal or reasonable calculations of pleasure and pain are disregarded, and unsatisfied desire is pursued without regard for one’s own safety (Antigone being the cardinal example);
  5. It’s an enjoyment immune to analysis, eternally resistant to rationality even when desired to be rationalized, because one is so pleased that she will subconsciously subvert attempts to trap and domesticate her pleasure objectively;
  6. Finally, it’s an experience that is intrinsically embodied – a facet that seems rooted in its imperviousness to analysis, its ultimate radical subjectivity and, therefore, unknowability.

This is a powerful stuff, this jouissance. For me it adumbrates the depth and intensity of experience we humans are capable of, in all its risk and vulnerability. It helps me see that, if I am to become open to the possibilities of bringing authentic pleasure into my classroom, I need to get comfortable with content and energies and ideas and reactions that are a lot farther afield than what we might consider teacherly. It means that sometimes things are going to blow up and spin out of control: we might transgress some of the analyzable, cognizable, boundaried experience that we have understood the classroom to represent.

But we cannot understand a respect for cultivation of jouissant experience as license to release ourselves and our students from the entire habitus of schooling, can we? Developmentally, we need structure: we need roles, however open to student experience we may be. Roles are how we know who we are, after all, as we discursively form each other through reflection to each other of our rightness of fit within our culture, a concept beautifully formulated by Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne as “hammering each other into shape with the well structured tools already available.” Inasmuch as classrooms must perform socialization roles, they can never be fully jouissant.

It’s a paradoxical task, then, inviting and nurturing jouissant experience within – or even despite – school structures.

How to do that? Three possibilities emerge from my engagement with my chosen text today.

The first has to do with authenticity. The Arctic Monkeys’ song “Fake Tales of San Francisco” names the adolescent desire for someone to be what they are, and a bottomless contempt for those who are not. From James Dean on, the social construction of adolescence has included a desire for real-ness. Even notions of “cool,” etymologically, seem to stem from a stated desire to be contrary to the fray of dissimulation and posing, connected to something more genuine. The song is a sneer at an English band that pretends to cosmopolitan influences – to know more than it knows, to be something other than it is – and nothing here is more deserving of scorn. “Put down the handbook,” it implores: Stop pretending to be what a cool band is supposed to be. Be what you are.

A pedagogy that courts jouissant experience, then, acknowledges and invites sincerity, calls us all out when we are either asking for or rendering only that which the institution of school demands of us. So many contemporary thinkers are bringing our focus to the outmoded nature of our educational institutions. Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Jal Mehta, John Taylor Gatto, Seth Godin – all begin their critiques with the factory-based model of schooling we inherited from a time when socialization of the sprawling urban slums and Americanization of the hordes of immigrants paired with nascent psychometric hubris to form the primary organizing principles of school. How ill-fit these values are to our current needs – not just for economic viability in the global economy, but also for an expanded sense of self that could, if we really followed its implications with integrity, finally make good on the hollow promises of meritocracy we have mouthed for decades. Parker Palmer states that the functions of a profession are not necessarily those of the institutional structures that house it. Commitment to jouissance means willingness to defy those traditions of our institutions that limit our conceptualizations of what school can be.

The second calls us to a new openness to other texts. My texts must admit my students’, and I must find connections between the texts that authentically speak their lives back to them and the texts of my curriculum, which do the same for me. I have opened my pedagogy this year, asking my students to prepare “Signs of Life” for sharing and assessment. These are responses to our shared texts that might include traditional papers, but might also include mix tapes, student-recorded songs, collage, painting, poetry. So many students bring me examples of what they really listen to, inscriptions of what they really think, as sound and word and color. The authenticity overwhelms, sometimes. Such connection and relevance is only possible if I open my conception of text worthy of shared regard to include their real stuff. The record I am writing about here didn’t come into my life from a student – but the Arctic Monkeys’ next album did, as did The Roots collection of protest songs, and The Roots in general, and the Beastie Boys game-changing Paul’s Boutique back in 1994. I demurred when my high school student presented me with the bootleg cassette after class. “No, really,” he said – “it’s not what you think it is.” And he was right.

And the third requires of us a vulnerability to aesthetic experience. By now we must see that jouissance finds us through myriad forms of representation, as Eisner has declaimed during his forty-year career. Meaning is inseparable from the medium that conveys it. When the bottom drops out of this song in the second bridge – when the buzz saw guitars kick in, and the entire band lays back luxuriating in the great slab of sound that only a wide-open rock band can provide – I am always overwhelmed, “blissed out” (the original media-coined term, incidentally, for what came to be called “grunge,” named for the visceral response perhaps we all can have to such gorgeous sonic overwhelm). I must open my pedagogy to the aesthetic. Only by doing so have my students this semester been empowered to bring their real texts into our shared space, thereby inviting peripheral glimpses of jouissant experience with all its vigor and potential.

In closing: Martha Graham offers this:

There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.

To sit with the implications of this observation – to square it with arguments that our economic engine is driven by innovation, not rule-following; by exceeding expectations, not meeting them – is to conclude that we must open our conceptualization of pedagogy to admit pleasure of an unbounded, even frightening sort. Only thereby will we incorporate the real forces that drive us into our work with our students – and really bring their true energies to pedagogy. And that’s our challenge – jouissant in itself in its unpredictability, its lived-ness, and its ultimate unmanageability.

souvenirs of perfect doom

Two observations:

1. My iPod Classic is broken. Kaput. All I wanted to do was put the latest Donald Fagen on it. But My MacBook Pro updated iTunes on the down low last week. And after several cycles of reformatting and shocking claims of “corruption,” it now insists, with an almost audible sigh, that the poor device “cannot be read or written to.” Let us mourn. I know it was a few years old, recently retired from the stable, its click wheel redolent of a time when a free U2 album meant more than fearing you had accidentally picked up your parents’ phone.* But I appreciated its single use utility, its massive memory – and above all, not needing a new one for my treadmill exertions. No matter. Planned obsolescence is the Apple-est thing in the world, and I am now on its pointy end.

2. My two month-old son sees angels – in the wallpaper, hovering in the air behind me. Maybe his grandmas, what we like to think, making themselves known to him for a few more weeks. Maybe someone or something else, impossibly new, unimaginable. Some will doubt. But his eyes have just learned to focus, and its the most human thing in the world to notice and look at something, so intently that I follow his gaze every time over my shoulder, up to the ceiling. He is completely absorbed when it happens, silent, locked in. Nothing there that I can see. Then again, I am looking though such smarter and surer eyes.

*                            *                            *

Seeing more can make you see less. This should be a minor truth for someone like me, if it is true at all. It’s really more like blasphemy than insight, to an educator: we are in the business of piling up things to see, making curriculum that tries to show you the right things first so you can better understand and file away what follows. As from the alphabet comes Shakespeare’s plays, from the integers come Euler’s Law. Seeing a lot is the whole point: helping the student fill a well-stocked lumber room from which to build and extrapolate and conjure from here on out. Seeing more is better, and I am here to show it to you. You’re welcome.

But it seems pretty majorly true to me right now – the more-is-less thing. I am beginning to wonder at the capacity of our first thoughts to form our reactions to everything that comes after, or even blind us to seeing anything else. This phenomenon has psychological applications: the homes we come from bend us for good or ill, of course, and as we get older we all become more amazed at how the “juice we were cooked in” leaves its aftertaste, whatever else we choose to eat. Our experiences can’t be unexperienced, and some of the most useful approaches to helping trauma survivors heal come from understanding how we hold on to the primal defensive reactions that trauma creates deep in our subconscious nervous systems, priming us to flee or fight decades after the threat has passed.

But maybe another reason we cling so hard to our first thoughts is that they give us something to say back to whatever thoughts might follow. Even if what we say creates more heat than light, it’s better than being quiet. Here I’m thinking about how hard my own ideological and political inclinations were set early in life, by college for sure. And I am despairing some at how a local school controversy last year about whether or not a book was appropriate for the 10th grade curriculum settled so quickly into a for/against, good guys/bad guys shouting match, where everyone involved was mostly interested in reiterating their own points long after no one not already converted had stopped listening.

As a community, we showed ourselves unable to have a new thought, or even brook someone else’s – our hard drives were already overwritten. The result: school board elections last week where everyone put the candidate most completely of their own stripe in office, presumably to be sure their corner was well-defended next time something comes up. We are as polarized as ever up here on the mountain, spending Sunday mornings (and most other mornings too) surrounded by people who affirm how right we are, and wondering at what crazy stuff they must be saying down the hill and down the way and everywhere else at that same hour, every week.

My computer said my iPod was corrupted. That was the word –  biblical, moth and rust inevitably befalling those who treasure up the wrong stuff. But how could it be? If there’s a closed system in computing, it was my iPod Classic. No online bugs or unorthodox software could have crept in: the thing needed a wire to update, for crying out loud, connected to a USB port (laugh politely into your hand). Far as I can grok, the thing got zonked out by that very closedness: copying my same file library over and over again to successive computers and drives, making pictures of itself that got blurrier and blurrier with every print.

I know that’s not really how 1s and 0s work, tech friends – calm down. They are supposedly frictionless. But there are ghosts in our machines. Why else do I need to occasionally check Word for Mac for “permission errors” when it slows down, like I did last week? And find hundreds of lines of code that detail bumps and jolts from inconsistencies that the thing did to itself, its own cost of doing business barnacled all over its digital hull? Orthodoxy – monoculture, the closed box – is no guarantee against corruption. In fact, from where I sit, it might cause it. (Or maybe a little built-in friction is better at keeping things running smoothly than none at all.)

I started with a thesis: did it show up, eventually? Perhaps best that the iPod has died, choked on its own intentions to only listen to itself again. Maybe time for a new device, or at least some new tunes. Maybe time for all of us to watch for angels in the architecture, to look less to recognize what we already know, and more to see.

Donald Fagen got me into this; I’ll let him take me out with his typically hermetic take on saving the wrong things, getting blinded by what we store up.

Have you seen the memorabilia?
The dusty old memorabilia?
Souvenirs of perfect doom,
In the back of Louis Dakine’s back room.

*Jimmy Fallon’s joke, not mine.

And Sometimes It’s Not Even Funny

127135aMy blog space is becoming sort of maudlin, isn’t it, with all these elegies: my beloved professor earlier this year, and my perseverations on Dave Wallace that have preceded the class I’ll begin next week on him.

Maybe something brighter can come of remembering Robin Williams, even as news of his death is still settling in. I like to think he’d prefer that.

There was an unexpected treat in the (unremarked but still pretty wonderful) 2009 Kevin Spacey vehicle Shrink. Robin, uncredited, plays “Holden,” a thinly veiled version of himself who’s a client of Spacey’s celebrity therapist. Holden crosses one of Spacey’s pro bono clients in the lobby, the hard-as-nails Jemma, played by Keke Palmer, with eyes as old as the wide wide sea. She fixes him with a hard stare, and they have an exchange I remember like this:

Jemma: Aren’t you…?

Holden: Yes.

Jemma: (after long pause) You should make better movies.

Holden: (after slightest beat) Yes, I should.

It’s one of the sublimest little moments I remember of Late Robin: a willingness to take the air out of himself, as easily as he would do the same to you.

Not that I was much of a student of him, though he was unavoidable for most of my adult life. Some of his grown-up work really affected me. His part in the bewildering Terry Gilliam fever-dream The Fisher King, for sure – and of course Good Will Hunting, where he finally grounded the manic humanities-crossed savior of Dead Poet’s Society that showed me the teacher I wanted to be for the first five years or so. (No point linking any of those movies – they are ubiquitous, part of the culture.)

He did a lot of forgettable grown-up stuff, too, to my eyes, and a lot of humor too broad to be pardoned. We found the barely-middling Man of the Year in our rented beach house this summer and suffered through a lot of it. Especially his continued willingness to do ethnic and sexual stereotypes that really can’t be countenanced in 2014, when so many others have moved past him.

He seemed game throughout that turkey of a film, though, up for anything. I was touched by the extras feature that showed him working the crowd in the debate scene between takes, performing as his own warm-up man, apparently out of nothing other than the compulsive desire to complete himself through others’ laughter that seems to lie at the heart of so many durable comics’ drive. (Plenty of amateur psychiatric ink will be spilled on this point in the coming days, to be sure, so I’ll spare you any more.)

I can’t see him as a grown-up, though. I have to be the fan I was of him first. That is, he was – apart from Donny and Marie, obviously – probably the first famous person I was a true, fall-over fan of. And by “him,” of course I mean Mork.

Mork who I met when I was nine, the alien who talked like another nine year-old. So fast, so silly, apparently so tuned to nothing other than the rattling possibilities in his head and the response he was getting from the people around him of laughter but also shock, surprise, disbelief. I didn’t think you could do that on TV. I didn’t think anyone else talked like that except my friends and me in the back of the car coming home from church, revving through jokes and Muppet Show skits and – now – Mork and Mindy sketches, best as we could remember them pre-VHS, pre-anything. Mork gave us permission to be silly, over-the-top-hurts-to-laugh-anymore silly. And we were, to the dismay of all grown-ups who witnessed us. Way beyond what grown-ups could countenance as silly enough, loud enough, for long enough. Me and Brendan and Tim and Ian, terrorizing the world with our mouths and hands and our faces and our staggering capacity for uncut, industrial-strength silliness.

He blew my nine year-old mind. I had rainbow suspenders, just like him – even had the courage to wear them to school, once. My kids received a box set of the first season of M&M a few years ago, and it’s been in heavy rotation with them ever since. The show itself hasn’t worn well; the reliable 70s sitcom rhythms were pretty hard to slip, and are almost unwatchable post-Seinfeld and everything else. But there he is, doing the same thing he just did, and did, and did. The cast stands agape for many of his ad-libs. They must have become tiresome. Compulsively funny people are sometimes. Tiresome. Like nine year-olds.

I tried to find a clip of Robin and Jonathan Winters to post, but couldn’t find any that were consistently funny. Which seems to be, perhaps, one of Robin’s legacies: that comedy isn’t pretty, and sometimes it isn’t even funny. But there is much to be said for continuing to throw the spaghetti against the wall until something sticks, isn’t there. “You should make better movies.” True…and, sometimes, he did.

In lieu of that absent clip, I’ll link to Hyperbole and a Half’s perfect, agonizing take on depression, drawn by one who knows. May we finally get it through our collective heads that depression isn’t a character flaw, but a vicious, merciless disease that grinds down so many of the finest and fairest among us. May our culture learn at last to treat mental illness, its victims, and its survivors with respect and research and compassionate policy, and insurance to match. (Addiction too. That’s another post.)

So, what’s this all offer readers of an education blog? Maybe something about the power of connection to youth: a celebration of the call to openness and risk-taking that youth trades in and that adulthood, well, tries to stamp out too frequently (at least in school). Maybe gratitude for the invitation Robin left us to take risks, to be not funny sometimes in the name of doing what we have to in order to be there for when the funny shows up.

And when it showed up for him, it was dazzling. Thanks, Robin.

Image from TicketMaster.

writing expectations for the class

This is pretty meta: posting on the blog the description of blogging I’m asking my students do this semester which I figured out by…posting on the blog. Still, beauty’s where you find it- and I stand by the pedagogy.

Teacher friends: anyone else doing this kind of work?

What writing matters most to our learning in a seminar like this?

First off, I don’t think it’s research papers. I agree with this (wonderfully snarky) author: Everybody in college hates papers. But I disagree with her when she says that writing is not a crucial part of learning. (I have tried to use traditional exams in this class, like she calls for: that doesn’t work either.)

I have come to understand that students benefit most in this class from reflective writing. But not the free-write, whatever-comes–to-mind kind of reflective writing. I mean the kind where you try to freeze all the lightning-fast associations and insights that your brain is always firing off when you are engaged with an idea or an insight and get them down on paper, maybe reading them back to yourself now and then to find out what you think. I mean the kind where you realize that something you are reading for a class somehow helps you understand something that happened to your brother back in grade school, and at the same time gets you thinking about a short story you read for another class, and for some reason puts a song in your head that you can’t get out for the rest of the day.

The best I can figure, this is what learning actually looks and feels like: the alignments of new insights with old ones, the constant effort of our minds to shape a coherent understanding of the world’s thorniest dilemmas out of EVERYTHING we have read and seen and experienced. In fact, I don’t think we don’t really have an “experience” in class until we do this part of threading what we are reading and discussing back into everything else we have gone through. (Not my idea BTW, as you’ll see when we read Dewey.)

Writing that invites us to witness that process and engage in it and try to share it – THAT’S helpful to learning. And that’s the kind of writing we’ll do here.

We will write blog posts. I have found that keeping a blog is a powerful adjunct to my own learning, and so I’ll invite you to do the same while you are in class. We’ll use ASULearn to maintain the blog, in ways that will become clear as we learn about that site’s functionality through the semester.

You’ll be required to write THREE blog posts for this class, by the end of each Friday of the semester (take one week off). Length will vary, but I can’t imagine anything shorter than about 800-1000 words really getting the work done.

I think my best blog posts usually include three elements:

  1. Reference to some text I have come across that has got me thinking – an essay, a song, a movie, even an overheard conversation;
  2. Reference to some personal connection or experience that it got me thinking about;
  3. Reference to some other text(s) that come to mind while I am writing that seem relevant, which I try to use to think about the other two things.

For our purposes, I assume that usually (1) will be something we have read or discussed together in class. (2) and (3) – that’s all you.

At the bottom I’ll include links to some of my own blogging that I think shows what I mean. Please notice that this writing is first-person and informal – it is emphatically not “a paper” – and note that I link to whatever sources I can through hyperlinks to other web sites.

Also note that this writing is an invitation for others to read and respond. Not many do, to mine – although more do on Facebook, where I push all my blog posts to the collection of dear friends I’ve been fortunate to collect over the years. That’s the best possible audience to write for, by the way: a little interested in what I am thinking about, maybe, but always supportive because, well, they’re my friends. In this class, assume your classmates will read and may respond to your work as well. Note that this means you are writing to be read by others, not just yourself – but for SUPPORTIVE and INTERESTED others, not critical ones. That’s the magic crease you need to hit in this kind of writing: attentive enough to require you to be clear, but kind enough not to stress you out.

Also note that this writing is interesting. At least it should be: I was feverishly interested in what I was writing about as I was writing, and that energy should come across in the reading. It’s also personal – it frequently tells stories, and stories are inherently interesting to humans. The energy of GENUINE INTEREST is, I am convinced, the most powerful element in all teaching and learning. I was genuinely interested in the things I was writing. No one was making me care about it: I actually DID.

My dearest wish is that this assignment and the experiences it invites you to have will give you a taste of actually finding the relevance of our work together to everything else you have learned, and your own experience: that you’ll have that amazing moment when what the curriculum “wants” you to think about and what you ACTUALLY want to think about become almost the same thing. When school works, it’s because it’s allowing those moments to happen.

Those moments can change you forever. I hope you have some this semester.

something moving in the sidewalk steam

EASTER_genesis_groupWell, folks, I’ve been scooped – but The New Yorker is a worthy scooper. Check out Jon Michaud’s wonderful piece upon the fortieth anniversary of Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, won’t you – for the crazy video stills of Peter Gabriel performing in character in 1975, if nothing else. Maybe rethink what “progressive rock” is or was, or has to be, a little bit, because Michaud really does get at the odd bits of this record that defy the Spinal Tap-py story of indulgence and excess that has held for so long.

I personally have been neck-deep in Lamb this spring for the first time since high school, trying to use it to understand why I didn’t listen to some records for the first time so much as recognize them. Something in the musical motifs themselves are deja vu-ish, from the first moment I heard them. A striking # of these are Genesis themes: some from Lamb, but also the big motifs from A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. As mentioned previously, Radiohead’s OK Computer had this uncanny zing for me as well.

I wonder what this suggests about the pre / ante-cognitive qualities of childhood and how they echo down into adulthood. How could I recognize songs the first time I heard them? Three possibilities come to mind:

  • Had I actually heard them before, somehow? Maybe. But my folks weren’t too likely to have Old Grey Whistle Test on the telly, and their record collection tended – splendidly – to Herb Alpert and his hangers-on. So, no. (1)
  • Or do they echo other grand motifs I did grow up saturated in: church hymns, maybe? I responded early and often to the deep hymn culture of the faith I was raised in. Maybe that’s where I learned that music can move you deeper than anything else, can become the most important thing in the world. (Remembering my dad, a chaplain, once describing liturgy as “the stuff between the songs.” Indeed.)
  • Or third and most likely, and most exciting: were my ears uniquely pricked to the power of sweeping prog rock themes by the circumstances in which I first heard them? i.e., under the tutelage (and sometimes the actual headphones) of older, more experienced and infinitely emulate-able kids, who took my upstairs in literal and figurative ways by turning me on to big records as well as the way to listen to them: raptly, reverently, intensely? I think so.

Rock music was so much more than pastime to me as a kid: it was a ticket in to a different world, a ticket out of the world I wanted to escape. A ticket up to becoming someone so much cooler than I was. The music wasn’t just an accessory to this ascension: it was the door.

I remember being mocked on a long campout with older kids from a different Boy Scout troop about this point. It was an odd trip, a last-minute change of who I’d be with, and I was struggling to fit in with the is already-established group of guys who weren’t too keen on having an interloper around for a couple of weeks. One of them overheard me singing the theme from Heavy Metal while rolling my sleeping bag, and mocked me for it. I responded that I was kind of an expert in rock and roll, thank very much, and knew what I was singing about, so they should step off. The gauntlet was down, and I was teased, oh yes.  Was quizzed hard on big 70’s rock arcana and did pretty well. The difference between Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull was one topic, I think – it all gets kind of hazy, and of course I really wasn’t so expert (no Zeppelin in my experience, yet).

But it was so important that I be THOUGHT of as one. Seeing myself as expert in AOR radio stuff was crucial for my emerging sense of being, and it felt very vulnerable to NOT know something. My path to assertion of a self were closely tied to my relationship to music.

Turns out I was turned on by the “gnostic” aspects of big 70’s progressive rock, in Allan Moore’s formulation (which I found in Kevin Holm-Hudson’s terrific ethnography of the record – thanks inter-library loan!). For him, prog rock is all about:

…concentration on obscure or occult (in the sense of ‘hidden’) matters, lack of obvious personal reference and a clear attempt to provide an alternative way of looking at things, even if this was not clear to the uninitiated…gnostic faiths are based on the belief that salvation is gained by knowledge, rather than by faith or works or some other means…obscurity is hence to be striven for in their construction, since it intensifies the achievement of the goal (p. 14).

So mastering the obscurity was the point, the more obscure the better.

And while mastery of arcana isn’t the exclusive domain of the prog rockers, it’s uniquely important to them (us). Because the music I loved was set apart from pop and heavy rock by its sensitivity, its complexity, and above all its musicianship. The “sessionman-virtuoso culture” (p. 18) of prog was the way an emerging musician like myself (I was an excellent clarinet player) could transform the “band geek” skills and sensitivities I was developing into something like cultural cred.

At least, that’s how it worked among the other band geeks I joined in the band room every morning, to listen to TDK copies of Rush and Genesis albums at the highest volume the band director would tolerate and argue over how difficult passages where constructed. This was a promising social gambit: some of the band geeks weren’t so geeky, after all (some were even drummers), and the black concert t-shirts so desirable as token of cool were worn by a lot of them. I remember wowing a group of upperclassmen one morning by jumping on the drum kit and demonstrating mastery of the stuttering pattern of the middle section of Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato“. Their applause felt like sinking a clutch free throw. Music was my way in to the culture. It’s not an exaggeration to name it the primary way I located myself w/r/t to the rest of the world.

So (back to my point), maybe I listened to these grand musical themes more intently than I listened to anything else in my life – since, truly, my life depended upon knowing them. And so (as is the case in actual deja vu) my listening was in fact a remembering, a captured echo of an (immediately) previous intense experience. Maybe, if we are really paying attention, everything is a remembering, because everything matters.

This insight matters a lot for an educator (and an education blog reader – dear reader, forgive the indulgence). Because it gives yet another glimpse into the intensely sociocultural nature of learning: how we are not brains in vats but rather communal entities, judging value and attention due the passing course of life (currere) through an intimate process of how its meaning refracts our relation to the world around us.

Less obtusely: we learn because we care, and we care because we want to be in satisfying communion with the world and ourselves. Pure, logico-aesthetic connection with the world happens, sometimes, I grant – but more frequently, I think it is intensely mediated by what it tells us about ourselves, how it connects us to those we care about, how it “matters” in a material, lived world. I don’t remember and love the texts of my own prog rock curriculum as deeply as I do only because of their beauty: I love them because of how and why they mattered to me socially and culturally.

Could our culture’s present common-sense understanding of education be any further from these principles? The current state and fed policy sure doesn’t get it. Consider:

  • As we script curriculum across classrooms and states, we assert the value of standardized inputs and outcomes and scotomize the value of individual experience.
  • As we lock teachers into impoverished models of accountability and efficacy, we starve their capacity to build personal relationships with students that are tuned to what really turns them on and what they want their lives to be about.
  • As we tell teachers, year after year, that only those outcomes which can be captured and compared quantitatively have value, we devalue the sacred impulses which brought them to the classroom.

And as teachers see their most precious love – for really connecting with another, for changing someone’s life – devalued, they begin to believe what they are told: that they are only worth their output. They die inside, burn out, despair, and therefore apart themselves in their practice from the only love that can really vitalize it. Or they leave – and a LOT of them are – in search of employment that better feeds their vocation.

Yes, these things are connected. Real learning understands that the stakes aren’t merely intellectual, and sometimes aren’t intellectual at all. I celebrate the thousands of teachers who work to help children embrace what they most love and what most feeds their connection to the world, even when they are doing this work in airless rooms. And I wish them the capacity to find their own air – in their own attachment to the texts and experiences that feed them, in their attachment to their students, in their attachment to each other.

Now go find some headphones.

(1) – meanwhile, apparently this exists. Let’s call it homage, and return to our breath.

Longhair Genesis portrait taken from this awesome fan site, with thanks.

 

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.