A Friendly Emptiness

Lots of people are writing good remembrances of Charlie Watts. (Here’s one I really like.) But none of them are drummers, that I have found so far, and so none of them seems to get what matters most about what he did with his art.

I am a drummer, and I do. And here it is.

Charlie Watts taught me to play the back of the beat.

Not the backbeat; that’s what James Brown taught me, and all of us. That’s the 2 and the 4; the beat that sounds like rock and roll since “Rocket 88,” in which no one plays it but if you can’t hear it you’re dead. Same with Elvis’ “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” or “Rock Around the Clock” for crying out loud. It is right there in the DNA of the thing. One TWO three FOUR. The Stones were a blues band as surely as Zeppelin and the early Beatles were. Taking that American backbeat and pulling it back through their big guitars.

But Charlie Watts taught us drummers that the backbeat is a whole continent, and you can choose where and how to live on it. And he chose to live at the very end of that continent, on the western beach of every bar. His snare backbeat would push along right at the end of what we could hear as where it needed to be.

And by making that choice, suddenly each bar had so much ROOM in it. Head room, elbow room. In every way that something like “Immigrant Song” is crowded as a dance floor, “Beast of Burden” (or “Tumbling Dice,” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking“) has space for days on all sides. And you can hear how the band would lie back in it, propped against it, happy to filigree and embroider and otherwise piece in the song, confident that they had all the time in the world.

Charlie Watts taught me that a drummer is a timekeeper, but not a metronome. A drummer actually KEEPS the time: domesticates it, trains it, decides what it will do or won’t, and thereby creates the space in which the rest of the band does everything else. Richards, Jones, and Wood couldn’t have inscribed those long, languid rhythm lines and soaring lead lines against any other space than the one CW made for them.

Of course this is just not just my legacy; check the opening bars of Sheryl Crow’s great single “My Favorite Mistake” to catch the inimitable Wendy Melvoin leaning a Keith Richards riff up against Gregg Williams’ best Charlie Watts homage. Anywhere the drummer lets you exhale and stretch out: there he is. Michael Bland on Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls.” I actually think the main shift when Prince changed bands in the late eighties was behind the kit, from Bobby Z. to Michael B., because suddenly there was some space in all that electric funk. There’s a great bit at the top of “Calhoun Square,” where we hear Prince instructing the band on how to do it: “Listen to the drummer, but you still want to have fun. It shouldn’t be work. Two, three, BAYbay…”

There’s a lot of unaccountably breathless stuff said about a drummer’s time being an expression of their soul (even in the Mike Edison piece linked above: “It came from his heart, not from his hands…”)

Well, maybe. I am not comfortable speculating on the texture of a musician’s heart based on their art. Music isn’t a window into who someone is so much as it is an “expression” of an intention through the actual substance that comprises them, like oil pressed from an olive (that’s John Dewey’s analogy, though I can’t cite it right now — honest). And so perhaps Charlie Watts’ time reflected the sensitivity he cultivated through his jazz attentions and creations. I don’t know. I don’t have him here to ask him.

But I do have his music, and I know what his music made me notice and made me feel, and what it likewise did for his bandmates. And it was really something special. It sounded like nothing else, and so it gave us all more to hear and more to think about when we sit down at the kit and do what we do. Which is calling structure out of nothing; marking time in our own special way so that others can fill it in with their own special ways.

Not unlike being a teacher, come to think of it. In that great teachers, like great drummers, don’t merely dazzle with their words and erudition, their speed and their fills: they create spaces for others to become who they can be. Here I’ll quote Henri Nouwen on the dynamic, which he calls “hospitality” after his Christian tradition:

The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adore the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own.

I love being a teacher, and I love being a drummer. I think Charlie Watts did too. I will miss him.

Image from NYT.

Didn’t Feel The Need

Today I use my small megaphone to amplify Nikole Hannah-Jones’ decision not to join the faculty of my doctoral alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is a shameful day to be a Tar Heel. Carolina’s loss is Howard’s gain. I hope for change in my state, and its flagship university — the kind that can only come from the pain of national public humiliation. Though I don’t have much reason to believe it’s forthcoming.

Her actual statement will probably not be read by many (it’s at the link), so I will excerpt it at length below. What could I possibly add.

“These last few weeks have been very dark. To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful. The only bright light has been all of the people who spoke up and fought back against the dangerous attack on academic freedom that sought to punish me for the nature of my work, attacks that Black and marginalized faculty face all across the country…

“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it. How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes? Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.

“The Board of Trustees wanted to send a message to me and others like me, and it did. I always tell college students and journalists who are worried that they will face discrimination, who fear that they will be judged not by their work but for who they are or what they choose to write about, that they can only worry about that which is in their own control: their own excellence. I tell them all they can do is work as hard as possible to make themselves undeniable. And yet, we have all seen that you can do everything to make yourself undeniable, and those in power can change the rules and attempt to deny you anyway.

“Since the second grade when I began being bused into white schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke, how I looked, the work I produced.

“I have never asked for special treatment. I did not seek it here. All I asked was to be judged by my credentials and treated fairly and equally…

“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.

“I fought this battle because I know that all across this country Black faculty, and faculty from other marginalized groups, are having their opportunities stifled, and that if political appointees could successfully stop my tenure, then they would only be emboldened to do it to others who do not have my platform. I had to stand up. And, I won the battle for tenure.

“But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight. And I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.”

It also bears repeating that “Hannah-Jones traveled to Chapel Hill over the weekend to meet with the Carolina Black Caucus and student protesters to tell them in person because she “didn’t want them to feel betrayed.”

“She also told them she was grateful for their support and appalled at how they were treated at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, when they were pushed out of the room by law enforcement after initially refusing to leave for a closed session.

“Hannah-Jones said she had not told UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and outgoing Provost Bob Blouin of her decision.

“But as for the chancellor and the provost, I didn’t, because I haven’t heard from them since this happened,” Hannah-Jones said. “So I didn’t feel the need.”

the good doctor

The condemnation this weekend of a vile editorial about whether Dr. Jill Biden should retain her academic title when she becomes First Lady was gratifyingly swift, and its defense has been predictably toothless. It is not the first attack Dr. Biden has endured for her education commitments, and it certainly won’t be the last. Maybe it is not worthy of more attention. We shouldn’t feed trolls more eyeballs. Perhaps there’s nothing more to say.

But I think there is. Because the degree in question is the Ed.D., the Doctor of Education. And it seems that both Dr. Biden’s attackers and her defenders are unwittingly re-enacting the same pernicious story that has long afflicted that particular degree. And the women who hold it, and education generally. Alongside the misogyny within this attack lies the systematic devaluing of education as a serious field of study and a worthy object towards which to tilt one’s life. And no one seems to be talking about it. Allow me to try.

A trip down the Wikipedia page that elaborates the history of the term “doctor” is a dizzying tour of the history of ego and power tied up in a term of address. The boundary maintenance around who can and can’t use the title has long been the hallmark of the integrity of several fields — academic integrity, sure, but also economic integrity. If everyone is a “doctor,” then who gets to say who are the real experts, and who are the quacks? A lot of influence — and money — hangs in the balance around that question.

Fascinating and important history notes the American Medical Association’s role in both asserting their own scientific seriousness and, in the same gesture, dismissing those who weren’t “scientific” in their ways as dangerous charlatans. It includes the dramatic recasting of medical education a century ago as requiring specific scientific and clinical training that decimated caregiving in other traditions, especially those that had thrived for generations in historically Black medical schools. Who gets to be a doctor, and who doesn’t, is not merely a question of getting a maitre’d to secure you a desirable table, or whatever other social pretensions with which Biden is currently being impugned. The question of who is a doctor is has been life-or-death, to entire disciplines of care as well as the communities they serve.

Moreover: as academic Ph.Ds have been maligned as “not real doctors” by holders of the allopathic M.D., so has the Ed.D. been historically maligned as a “less than” degree within the academic community. Distressingly, there remains a tacit bias in many universities that what happens in a school of education is essentially preparation for the twin trades of teaching children and supervising those teachers. That there is nothing further to think about, research, or explore in the field, since it is foremost a practical one. If this is the case, then their salaries can be lower, and their representation in university affairs can be muted. A caste system can be maintained, if not acknowledged.

Part of this situation might be correctly placed, we must note. The Ed.D. has the distinction of being among the first “professional doctorates” widely offered. A preparation that develops expertise in practice, not theory and research — that is outwardly focused on the world in all the same ways that the Ph.D. might be considered inwardly focused on the basic science of its the field. The rise of the professional doctorate in many fields alongside its research-driven counterpart in some cases may be an example of “credential bloat,” as its detractors have held. Many other caring fields are making the reckoning that education already has, about whether there is a specific training that fits the needs of its practitioners better than a purely academic one. The market “needs” more doctors — or at least can make money from their preparation. (Whether or not those doctorates in fact increase quality practice in the field, or simply contribute to the proliferation of “more letters,” is another important question.)

And it must be acknowledged that some Ed.D. programs have perhaps been less rigorous than their Ph.D. counterparts. For years, an ill-conceived notion of what a “clinical doctorate” should be — coupled with the economic boon for universities that came of offering one to a previously-untapped market of upwardly-mobile educational administrators — created a perfect storm for “fluff” degrees to thrive. (It should be noted that the provision of the same Ed.D. degree that has been sometimes maligned by arts, science, and humanities departments has, in many cases, funded their own faculty lines.)

The Ed.D. has been among the first in the “clinical doctorate” field to address these existential questions of identity and purpose, as well as the concomitant issues of rigor, relevance, and appropriateness. For nearly a generation, the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate (CPED), supported by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, has led a consortium of Ed.D. programs (my own among them) in doing this essential work. CPED doesn’t exist to counter the criticism of the degree: it exists to reconcile and make it equal to the crucial work its holders must do. But it also stands as an indicator of the seriousness with which this field takes itself, and a counter to thoughtless critics who seek to dismiss it.

This all probably seems like the insidest of baseball.

Until we also consider that education has rarely been taken seriously as a field of endeavor to which to dedicate one’s life, academically or otherwise. As I have detailed elsewhere, our nation’s commitment to public education turned from the beginning on the assumption that it was piecework, to be done by those who could be had on the cheap to do it. And the assumption that most of them would not make a life of it, and eventually would clear the lane for others who would continue to do it for less money than experienced practitioners would demand. When the holder of the Ed.D. is dismissed as a less-than-serious academic, she is also dismissed as someone devoting her life to a less-than-serious pursuit.

Such dismissal perpetuates the cynical fallacy undergirding the policy and social measures which today ensure that educators are treated as less-than professionals. Compensation: low. Autonomy: nascent, and vanishing. Respect: broadly offered as free burritos on teacher appreciation days; scant in ways that actually sustain careers and livelihoods on all others.

That’s one of the reasons that the way many of Dr. Biden’s defenders have gone about it stings a bit, to my ears. They have affirmed how hard she, and all holders of the Ed.D. or any legitimate doctorate, had to work to get there. They note that she, like so many Ed.D. holders, did it around the edges of a busy career, in early mornings and late nights and weekends stolen from the rest of their lives. Moreover, like so many women who disproportionally carry the emotional labor of family-making, she did it around the repeated litany of “making lunches and getting kids to school.” The argument is: respect Biden, and her degree, because she earned it, by working hard in ways you aren’t seeing. All of which is undeniably true of the majority of Ed.Ds, as I can intimately attest.

But only respecting what an educator has visibly worked for — and works for, even now — is part of what maintains the second-class status of the profession. Educators can then only be provisionally respected. Only if they are actively opening a vein for the young people they selflessly serve. How much of the Biden campaign messaging about Jill Biden has focused on how she constantly has a stack of papers to grade in her bag? How selflessly and doggedly she intends to continue her essential community college work, because it is a part of her, as a teacher with a deep sense of vocation and commitment to those she serves? If she had to do, she would do it for free, runs the message.

Show me another field that only respects their practitioners when they are doing more with less — before and after the rest of their lives each day, at great physical and emotional expense.

The greatest strength of the field of education is also its greatest vulnerability.

I do not denigrate the sacrifices that medical doctors and other health care workers make on behalf of their patients’ care, especially in our COVID time. I do note that medical doctors are respected even when they are not constantly, visibly, performing their duties unto exhaustion. Educators are not.

And ultimately misogynist stories about the unpaid and unseen labor that women perform are echoed and reinscribed every time it is stated that the reason a woman with a doctorate deserves respect is because of how hard she worked for it.

It seems to me that these are some of the deeper reasons why the holder of an education doctorate deserves respect. Because historically she hasn’t been respected — neither by the academy she joins, nor by the world she serves. And if she wishes to be respected, however tentatively, she must constantly enact the suffering and sacrifice that is required of any educator who wishes to join the ranks of the professionally honored.

That isn’t good enough. I honor Dr. Biden — and all the holders of the Ed.D. degree, including those we hooded in the Ed.D. program I serve just last week — as scholars and colleagues in full. Others who have consecrated themselves to the deep meanings behind terms like “doctor” and “professor.”

Teachers — of essential truths to those who will come next. Professors — of values and wisdoms and dispositions that are worthy of a life’s devotion.

Please join me in respecting them. Period. Full stop.

Image of the wall of my own program, where we honor each year’s finest work with the Alice Phoebe Naylor Outstanding Dissertation Award.

no better than its places

“Old Bob” was a horse that belonged to Blanford Barnard (“B.B.”) Dougherty, one of the founders of the school that became Appalachian State University, and its distinguished first president.

This is “Old Bob” in 1920, led by John Adams, who “worked for the Dougherty family.”


The accuracy of this photo is disputed, though. I am no horse expert, but elsewhere in the archives a similar image of a horse, against a similar background, is proclaimed NOT to be “Old Bob,” but instead a younger horse from a few decades later. Looks like the same horse to me. Mr. Adams does not appear in this photo, though given the identical size of the trees in the background, I imagine him just out of frame.


We seem to care a lot about “Old Bob” here. And there is concordance that “Old Bob” died in 1928, and that he was buried on campus, in the woods behind the Chancellor’s House at the time according to this image caption. This would mean his remains lie today roughly beneath the Watauga Residential College‘s kitchen garden, a synergy I am a little surprised our sustainability-focused campus has not yet noted.

John Adams is the single African-American I have found photographed in many hours of browsing Appalachian’s impressive online digital history archive. I have not yet read Dr. Susan Keefe’s magisterial Junaluska: Oral Histories of a Black Appalachian Community, which summarizes thirty years of oral history research into the community that has thrived on the mountain above the University for almost two centuries. But a search for “John Adams” in the Google Books version turns up nothing.

So John Adams is, for my purposes, invisible, as are the many many other Black people who are part of the story of this place. Unlike apparently every homecoming queen, pep rally leader, varsity sports player, or young thespian who ever got their photo in the yearbook, and subsequently in the archives.

Invisible, that is, until I look at the memorial stone placed three years ago on the 1/3 of Boone Town Cemetery, where Black people were buried for decades in unmarked graves. Dougherty himself is there too, in the white section fifty yards away beneath a tasteful marker, as are the rest of the founding fathers and mothers of this place. (The only three white people buried in the Black section are Union soldiers who died here during the war; they were placed in this section to show disrespect.)


The unmarked section lay in disrepair and disrespect for years, unfenced and uncultivated. Students stole the few stones that had been placed, and exercised their dogs there. But finally in 2017, archeological and archival work culminated in the dedication of the marker, which names as many people as can be identified who lie there. And a “John Adams” appears, 1893-1954, who may be the man in the photo.

I estimate the unmarked section of the cemetery is about two acres square, and contains the remains of more than 160 people.

The field behind where I think the chancellor’s house used to be is a bit smaller, and contains the remains of one horse.

What I am coming to is the realization that the final resting place of B.B. Dougherty’s horse may be more precisely known than that of the man who cared for him.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

My obsession with the history of Boone, North Carolina — my home of the last eleven years — sneaked up on me, and surprised me. Maybe it is just more evidence of my chameleonic nature. After all, when I lived in Chapel Hill, I became a college basketball fan; when I moved to a place where history is visible on every street, I became an historian.

But I think it is something deeper and more abiding than that compels me to care about history here. A few years ago I encountered Wendell Berry’s profound pronouncement about the sacredness of the exact ground beneath our feet:

No place at last is better than the world. The world
Is no better than its places. Its places at last
Are no better than their people while their people
Continue in them. When the people make
Dark the light within them, the world darkens.

And so I turned my attention to reading the streets and the buildings, seeking out old maps and photos, trying to piece together what used to be here or there and still is if you squint hard. In this I sometimes come across the history of segregation and institutionalized racism that remains written on our built environment, as on so many in the south. (Both our “consolidated” — read, “segregated” — school buildings still stand, as does the movie theater that stayed in business when the newer, bigger one opened because it allowed Black patrons into the balcony.)

But I also come across the fruits of the WPA’s deep investment in job creation up here, in buildings that still stand throughout campus as well as the Blue Ridge Parkway that lies ten minutes away. And everywhere I see evidence of this institution’s long-time requirement “do more with less,” as numerous chancellors have put it. Few public universities have the resources they need, but Appalachian’s remoteness from the big flagship universities, regionalism, and (say it) anti-appalachian sentiment have kept state funding of the place low for decades. So we don’t tear much down, considering. Everything gets refurbished and reclad to last another generation.

Which all means that the story of this place is so easy to find. It cries out to be read. I live in a house that appears in some of the first photos of Boone, built 1925. The history is in the floorboards, in the tag from the phone company in 1940 that hangs from an abandoned wire in the basement. I can’t help but see it.

I teach it too. Both to those who come to learn from me and those who don’t. I do local history in all my classes, especially of school segregation and how it played out in this community as a way to understand its echoes across the state. And I am a bore to anyone who will listen about what that building used to be, where this street used to run, the railroad and the lumber camp and the schools, the schools, the schools.

I am not just a pedant (though that too, probably). I really can’t help myself. I can’t stop from speaking the past into the present everywhere I have opportunity, because to do so suddenly gives so much depth to our experiences of this place today.

I mean something related to that uncanny sense we have when looking at “old photographs” of glimpsing someone who, through some trick of the lens or the light, does not look like they are “old’ but instead startlingly present, from right now. Those people were real people. (Spend a few minutes with this image of the graduating class of 1916 to see what I mean.)


I mourn the fact that so many of our photos are of “occasions” — birthdays and Christmases in our own photo albums, parades and football games. Because exactly what make “occasions” seem special enough to film in the moment are what makes them virtually indistinguishable in hindsight. Occasion images are the least interesting to find in the archives: this dance, that commencement. What fascinates instead are the images people took of things too commonplace to mention or document. What shoes people wore. What was on the front page of the newspaper in someone’s hand. John Adams’ hat.

To look at old images this way is to imbue today with a sense of mystery and meaning too. These shoes here, this hat I wore this morning, also mean something. This little life is being played out on the same ground, in the same halls, that those were. There is a kinship, a connection, not of fame or import but of merely being in parallel. Benevolent ghosts imbuing the present with something it lacks on its own. Others have been in these rooms, and others will be. That is okay.

And it is not. Because who is erased in all this seeing and noting? What casual violence is done in our own image-making and our own naming, as surely as was done to John Adams in the record? That we will see a hundred years hence and wonder how we could be so blind and so terrible in our banality?

Let us see now better than then.

A poem of my own, with obvious debt to Berry.

A place is sanctified a couple ways.

By what transpired there, now or long ago:
A battlefield, a hospital, a school.
Whatever its intent, its witnesses
Have made it something more than ever thought.
And so we monumentalize, inscribe.

Or what portends to happen there. Is hoped.
A temple — or a hospital (again)
A schoolyard (yet again): the holy truth
Of most of our humane pretending shown
By how we hope to care and hope to mend.

But by these lights: what isn’t sacred ground?
A bedroom — safe for resting, safe for love?
A kitchen — wrought for sustenance and health?
A highway — graded smooth to guide our path?
A storefront — where a family subsists?

A basketball, abandoned in a lot?
An empty can, reposing in a grate?
A river, in its form if not its stuff?
The line of thinking grows absurd: it’s all
Imbued with latent wonder. Power at rest.

The world is teaching mutely, if we look:
The present moment’s immaterial.
The pattern’s what ennobles and enshrines.
The ways that spaces and their objects shape
Our own intentions, turn and point our eyes

Our industry, our hopes for those to come.
The only sacred’s what we bring to bear.
If not, a rosary’s a bunch of beads,
A classroom just a warehouse for the young,
A hospital a catalog of pain.

No sacred save our ears, our glance, our touch.

Skating Well

The semester started three weeks ago, the calendar tells me. Like so many, I am only teaching online, for the foreseeable future.

Last March, when we didn’t bring the students back from spring break, finishing the semester meant continuing to develop our already-existing relationships by other means. But now class is little squares on a screen, by design. Little pictures of people I have never actually met in time and space, and possibly never will. Our entire engagement might be virtual.

This arrangement does not sit very well with me. It is more palatable with my adult doctoral students — who after all usually have greater motivation to accomplish what they signed up to do, and with whom I contracted to only interact this way with from the beginning. We all knew the limits and affordances going in. And having a 100% distance offering has increased access to our Ed.D. program, and affordability, so it is an undeniable win. (Plus they are adults, and one of the things about adults is that we are good at managing expectations.)

But with my undergrads in the Honors College — with whom I am working in my high-connection, high-relationship “Narrative and the Caring Professions” course this fall — well, I guess I am still trying to make the bug a feature.

Sometimes, while teaching, I change the settings to make the square of whoever is speaking automatically bigger, to try to approximate the sensations and proportions of actually dialoguing with another real person.

But this mostly makes it worse. I mean, things more or less look right: the top-of-the-line monitor my institution helpfully supplies me renders finer detail than my poor eyes can probably make out, and the colors are vivid. But all a bigger square really reveals is that everyone has the same default expression in Zoom, somewhere between bored and worried, with eyes focused somewhere around each others’ Adam’s apples, like we are all wearing really interesting necklaces. I am just a picture too, to them, after all.

And of course once you make one student’s picture bigger, the rest of them vanish, screen space being finite and forcing a tradeoff that doesn’t exist f2f. There is no peripheral awareness in online teaching, that I have found anyway. No focusing on one while also being in the room with another couple of dozen who you can hear breathing and rustling and conducting their own private investigations or wanderings or prosecutions. There’s no “business,” in the actorly sense (“the non-spoken physical activity of an actor…activity not crucial to the plot but helping to fill out a realistic scene/character”).

Ironic, of course, because supposedly online communication is all about business. But the absence of the fidgeting, scraping, snuffling reality of many people sharing time and space howls in my ears, as deafening a void as the no-place I am plunged into by my noise-reducing headphones. All I hear is my own voice, through heavy wet wool.

Jack White’s lines are obliquely, gothically, on point, like they so often are:

I wanna cut out my tongue and let you hold onto it for me
Cause without my skull to amplify my sounds it might get boring

I glimpse myself as I must appear, sometimes: finally an old man yelling at a television.

But the worst, of course, is when someone’s roommate or child or dog in one of those distant rooms says or does something more interesting than what is happening on the screen right then, which is not hard to do. And someone’s eyes and focus leave even the camera and skit to somewhere up and away, or someone to the side. And since everyone is so good at turning off their mics by now you’ll never know what it was, never hear the joke that’s led to the barely-suppressed laugh or the widened eyes as they wander back to the camera and the screen.

And that’s when the truth that we are working so hard to obscure comes into the sharpest relief: the class I am facilitating is really just one content feed among many, to be managed efficiently as possible and muted when necessary.

‘Twas always thus, of course, in school. Attention sought, feigned, coveted away. But when we shared time and space it was easier to pretend otherwise, because the presence of our bodies stubbornly insisted that where and when we were physically also expressed our mental and emotional presence. This is (was, in the beforetimes) the fiction every teacher has to buy into, in order to even begin class: if I “have your eyes” and you are not talking, then you must be “with me.”

But of course, who or what we are “with” in our attention is our most intimate fact, rarely fully known. And my college students this fall — finally empowered by distance to control where and how they are — no longer have to pretend.

It is kind of cute, in a “bless your heart” way, how many of us teachers are trying to pretend that the old stories about attention still hold. The ways so many of us implore (“require”) that our students never turn off their cameras: insist they perform with their eyes and faces some version of what we have demanded of them in our classrooms for generations.

But let’s face it: that bit of pretense is for us, not them. We teachers need the affirmation. We need our students’ complicity in the story that what we are bringing is what matters most in their lives right now — whether or not our offering deserves that place, whether or not the circumstances of their lives permit it even if they want it to be. Because if they are not doing their part to continue to tell that story, how can we possibly do ours?

I believe that teacher-guided curriculum (and not all curricula are teacher-guided — or perhaps should be) is an assertion by one to another that, among all the possibilities to which you could be attending at this moment, this is the one that matters most. And such curriculum only exists when enlivened by that attending. Therefore it must find the students, at least tentatively, on their own terms, and they must find it.

After all: until the best and smartest plan for class meets the reality of students’ lives as they intersect with it, it is only a plan. It is just one stranger’s feint of structure and direction into the inchoate reality of another stranger’s moment-to-moment concerns. A map of a place no one has ever gone — or can go, unless we take each other there.

If my students never show up for my curriculum with anything other than bodies in front of cameras and eyes cast somewhere on the screen I can’t see: does my curriculum really exist?

What does it really mean to conceive of what I have dedicated my life to teaching in a way that is more alive than anything else on offer right now?

What value proposition on my part could possibly cut through the fear, the worry, the isolation of this terrible slow-motion cataclysm we are all pulled along by, each day? The revealing of generations-deep structural obstacles to “every student succeeding”? The follies of online content delivery, of doc cams and breakout rooms and chats, public and private, that hum along parallel to so many Zoom discussions like notes passed along the back row (which the best teachers know they are supposed to intercept and open and read to everyone)?

Well, that is the job right now, y’all.

The sciences still say, look: these are the facts; this is what we know of the observable world we share. Shape yourself to them, and participate in extending their borders.

The humanities still say, look: this is how we think we should conduct ourselves in that world, with ourselves and with each other. Imagine what those who wrote these words were thinking. Consider if and how what they wrote illuminates this time and place.

And for those who work in the arts: the beauty, found and made, of the world still says, with Rilke, there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

As Emerson said, stunningly, in a very different time: We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.

I am skating as well as I can. If your life includes teaching, I hope you are too.

And if your life includes learning, I hope you get to turn off the camera sometimes. That you turn off the self-view all the time, of course, because nobody needs that kind of aggravation. But that in this time of gazes sought, met, and avoided: I hope you get to take back the right to decide how you are seen, and what you see.

And I hope the curricula presented are worthy of your attention. Your fragmented, troubled attention, which you, heroically, are still trying to bring to what your teachers have on offer. Even as the best of our work can seem trivial compared to everything else demanded of you now.

Please remember that, even with everything so different and terrible, class is still always about to start. This could always still be the day, the reading, the discussion, that changes everything. That reveals and dazzles; that makes sense out of the madness; that takes your breath away.

Let’s keep trying to find that moment, and each other. We can do this. It is what we do.

the shock and the sacred


All over the country right now, teachers are being asked to work double and triple-hard. In response to widespread shuttering of schools — for weeks, maybe longer — thousands of districts are asking their staffs to create, sometimes out of nothing, credible and productive work that can be done by students from their homes or shelters. They are being asked to learn new technologies, sometimes with little sense of whether or not the students they will seek to reach with those technologies will be equipped to meet them. They are running so hot. And no one has any idea whether it will work. No one has been here before.

Don’t forget that the district that sends out the we-all-have-to-pull-together-in-this-crisis emails is the same district that will turn its back on you the second you run out of sick time.

Don’t work for free.
Don’t spend your own money.
Follow your contract.

That was a social media post I saw yesterday, from a friend who is a career teacher and union rep in a large American city. The image above is another expression of a similar sentiment that is is going around.

It seems some who are not teachers are meeting this sort of wary response from those who are with alarm. Why are some of the teachers “so bitter”, they wonder? Why are they so guarded? It’s an emergency, after all! Everyone needs to pitch in!

I think the answer is that teachers are cagey right now because their experience has taught them to be. And, down deep,  such responses reveal what I think is an irreducible contradiction inside many teachers’ hearts:

The quality that is most sacred about a great teacher — which compels them to do their work well — also makes them uniquely vulnerable to exploitation.

Let me try to explain.

Anyone who pays even casual attention to the plight of the public school teacher will discern a long arc of those who control their professional lives seeking ways to ask them to do more with less. This is reflected in teaching’s efforts to professionalize itself, following the template that the medical profession did a hundred years ago. As well as in the groundswell of public agitation over the last years that seeks to keep the reality of the teaching life on everyone’s minds. The low pay*, of course — but also the loss of autonomy, and especially the funding disparities that ensure schools without many resources seem to stay that way, to the detriment of their students’ learning.

Public education also has a long history of acute crises deployed as leverage to effect dramatic change — often with concomitant negative impacts on teachers’ lives and their capacity to do their work. From Sputnik to Obama’s Race to the Top initiative: educators have learned to look askance at a sense of urgency thrust upon them, because it usually results in their world being upended and something new being taken out of their collective hides. (Put another way: teachers are frequently asked to do something new. They rarely have existing duties taken from them.)

This phenomenon can be understood as an expression of what Naomi Klein famously termed the “shock doctrine”:

the exploitation of national crises (disasters or upheavals) to establish controversial and questionable policies, while citizens are excessively distracted (emotionally and physically) to engage and develop an adequate response, and resist effectively.

This is the contemporary story — but it is not a new one. The very existence of public school, from its earliest beginnings under Horace Mann in Massachusetts, was predicated on the notion that teachers — especially female teachers — would do the work for less than its value, because the opportunity to care for what Lisa Delpit much later called “other peoples’ children” offered them a unique path to their own self-fulfillment. As Dana Goldstein writes in her terrifically readable history of the profession, The Teacher Wars:

…The home and the school (were) intertwined, two naturally feminine realms in which women could nurture the next generation. “Woman, whatever are her relations in life, is necessarily the guardian of the nursery, the companion of childhood, and the constant model of imitation,” (Catherine Beecher) wrote in her “Essay on the Education of Female Teachers.” “It is her hand that first stamps impressions on the immortal spirit, that must remain forever.” Historian Redding Sugg dubbed this the “motherteacher” ideal — the notion that teaching and mothering were much the same job, done in different settings (p. 18).

Goldstein goes on to explain that, with so few other opportunities available outside the home for (white, educated) women to pursue, Mann and the Massachusetts legislature sold the idea of the “motherteacher” to the public as a welcome alternative to the itinerant, abusive, and alcoholic male teachers (think Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) who dominated the period — men who, presaging the still-heard and hurtful saw about “those who can’t do, teach,” actually taught because they could not do.

So any time the conversation turns to teachers and compensation — in my state, and everywhere in this country — we must not be surprised when we encounter an underpinning of “why should we pay them more?” Because the very existence of the profession in this country is predicated upon the notion that a great teacher would actually do it for free — because teaching completes them and elevates them.

True story: last year I heard an otherwise-progressive member of my state legislature affirm that the best way for a North Carolina teacher to thrive is to marry a man with money.  Shocking — and not. (As is the fact that firing teachers upon marriage — or, god forbid, pregnancy — was widely practiced well into the 70s. Once you are married, why do you need to teach? You have your own kids now.)

This is the deep history of systemic exploitation that underpins any effort to ask teachers to do more, to hustle, to run hot.

But many do it anyway. Work beyond their contract. Pay for supplies out of their own pocket. Take “their” children into their own homes, and otherwise go way beyond their professional mandate, asked or not, in the service of the perceived need of the students and often to great personal detriment.


I am deeply impressed by the literature and research that seeks to understand the observable qualities — and the inner life — of those who have long and fruitful teaching careers. Especially those who do not merely survive the work, but thrive in it: that thrive because of it. There’s a perpetual-motion-machine aspect to considering these peoples’ practice. The impossible machine that engineers have sought for generations: one that runs without friction.

How is it that the precise elements of the work that “burn out” so many teachers actually sustain others?

We know about the “burn out” part; the rule of thumb is that half the teachers entering the field will no longer be teaching in five years (though those numbers are a little soft, it is still a hell of an attrition rate).

A few folks have offered really compelling explanations of what compels good teaching — and why those who do it well are vulnerable to exploitation.

David Hansen finds a “sense of vocation” that motivates many thriving teachers. Vocation is “a form of public service that yields enduring personal fulfillment to those who provide it” (preface). He figures that the place where one’s own desire to be of use in the world meets the world’s great need is the place where such folks thrive.** This is why when young people come to the College of Education with no sense of why they want to do this work other than a vague desire to “love those kids up, because they don’t get it at home,” I persevere — despite such unexamined beliefs being saturated with deficit stories about people and homes they imagine so different than their own. At the core of even such a statement is the beginning of a desire to be of use to those who need you, and that is sacred.

I have learned to use “sacred” the plainspoken way Parker Palmer does: “something worthy of respect.” In “The Grace of Great Things,” he invites educators to get in touch with their own deep sense of the sacred, and see the way it turns into being of use to others — not in a paternal or better-than way, but because to live in respectful relation with the world and those who inhabit it rhymes with deeper patterns of thriving.

It’s Wendell Berry who first (to me) explained those patterns — in the formidable little essay “Solving for Pattern” (from 1980, before sustainability was even a thing!). It is a piece about farming more than anything else, but he finds the lessons taught by the intractable realities of that work illuminating of so much more (“It is only when it is understood that our agricultural dilemma is characteristic not of our agriculture but of our time that we can begin to understand why these surprises happen, and to work out standards of judgment that may prevent them”).

Briefly put: for Berry, the only solution that truly solves a presenting problem is the one that ramifies into more solutions. Too many solutions are short-term, heedless of the long term expense of “running hot” (an engine, a field, a teacher) because they are focused only on short-term gains. The choice that enriches the soil and ensures long productivity is often the one that means fewer yields in the short term. Likewise is a life turned to service to others, while less remunerative or prestigious than other lines of work, often in keeping with the deep need of each of us to be embedded in the lives of others. The need so many of us feel to meet our own brokenness through encounter and work to heal the brokenness of another.

And here I arrive at the very core of this line of reasoning: the notion that we are all broken, incomplete, and can only find our wholeness in our identification with those who surround us, and our application of ourselves to the needs of others. This is the Saint Francis Prayer, of course, as well as a core precept of other faith traditions. In my own (Christianity) I found it well-explained in the thinking of theologian Henri Nouwen, who describes its mechanisms in terms of hospitality. Here’s a lovely passage that limns the experience of losing oneself in teaching another — and the truth in the teacher cliche about “learning as much from my students as they learn from me”:

Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host…When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity…Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.

But if this is in fact what most deeply motivates a life in service to other peoples’ children — and the needs of other peoples’ children are, in fact, an inexhaustible resource — then what could possibly prevent teachers with a sense of vocation from thriving? After all, they are doing the work they must to find their own peace and sense of fulfillment. What else do they need?

Well, they need the ability to do it and be adequately compensated for it, so that they can have lives of dignity. And they need to know that they have reliable access to the sense that their work is of worth: that they are having impact and making a difference.

Doris Santoro, though, explains how almost every top-down reform inflicted upon teachers complicates or ends the possibility of access to the sense that one’s work is of worth. She terms such outcomes the “moral rewards” of teaching — but notes that, as teaching becomes more a task whose value is assessed by the performance of students on high-stakes standardized measures, the less opportunity a teacher has to access those “moral rewards.”

Because such labor is by necessity atomized, piecework. “Standardization,” by definition, requires the reduction of the infinitely complex and situation-bound reality of teaching to specific tasks performed up to or not meeting expectations, followed by the enactment of a feedback loop to remediate and get a better outcome next time. In this way of thinking about the work, the teacher is merely a functionary of another’s intentions — an object, not a subject. And a student is just a set of outputs that are either acceptable or need more work.

So Santoro pointedly shuns the term “burnout,” because it places the cause of the failure to thrive on the individual teacher — on some inchoate personal or moral lack that makes this teacher unable to “make it” where another might. Instead, she insists on using the term “demoralization”: the institutionalized loss of access to the life-giving moral components of our work. Failures which are systemic — designed in — and not individual.

So in closing, this is all in play when a teacher is asked to run hot; to take one for the team; to dig deep and just get it done, just this once.

  • You have asked me to do that before.
  • A part of me wants to — because I am made whole by being of service.
  • That’s sacred, and I want to honor it.
  • But when I have honored it in the past, you have exploited it.
  • And so I won’t do that again.
  • But a part of me wants to.
  • But I just can’t anymore.

Round and round, And that’s why teachers are both working themselves to death this week, and why they are torn up about it. Why those who lead and advocate for them wish to serve the kids, and at the same time wish to save the profession from its own best — and worst — impulses.

The profession is doomed to be exploited. It was set up that way.

*A starting teacher in my state will earn $35K/year this year, with a $1K raise each year over the first fifteen years, until they top out at $50K for essentially the rest of their careers (up to $52K at 25 years of service). There are are of course local salary supplements that are paid by specific districts and areas, related almost wholly to that area’s tax base and ability to pay them — which leads to the perverse incentive for the most competitive teachers to seek jobs in the best-off districts and, sometimes but not always, not in the Title I schools that most need their skills. And you can earn a 12% bump by becoming National Board Certified after your third year. But that’s about it, in my state, where salary increases for graduate study was 86’d several years ago.

**Here he paraphrases, knowingly I think, theologian Frederic Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

the presence of social distancing

Working on laptop in forestI am probably taking my undergrads online starting Monday, as they return from spring break. This isn’t university policy yet, but it’s not NOT policy either. Most recent guidance states that “faculty may choose to take classes online as they determine best meets the needs of their classes,” and I so determine. It is time for “social distancing,” clearly.*

It is the smartest move now. My concerns about viral vectors into our mountains, especially as 18K+ young people return from across the state and further-flung places, are well-founded. I have been teaching the doc students via videoconference software for a while now, so we’ll just continue that work apace. There shouldn’t be too much disruption.

At least not in continuity. The syllabus will be addressed with few hitches. I will say things to a screen, and people on the screen will say things back, and we will call it school. Papers will be written and read, and grades and credit assigned. All good.

But not all good. I fear the disruption instead will be in other areas that are becoming almost impossible to argue for, especially as the technology becomes nearly seamless and more and more widely available.

The disruption will be in presence.

Presence isn’t just about seeing students and verifying that they are paying attention. We can do that better than ever remotely, now — better than we could just one or two years ago. In the conferencing software my campus uses, I can use cameras and simultaneous messaging and polls and breakout groups I can “drop in on,” like a teacher circling the room. I can even see what students are accessing in the online content management system. (Though I of course can’t know if, or how, they are reading what they have open. The sovereignty of the individual reader remains serenely intact, try as we might to crack it wide.)

Presence is instead somehow about the subtle but essential shifts that happen when everyone involved in learning decides that it is important enough to get up and compose themselves and physically go to its own special place to do.

Of course, there’s an ancient, delusional danger in pretending that dedicated school spaces are solely places of learning. “Learning” hasn’t been the only thing happening in school since we started having school. No one is “on task” in school, hardly ever. (I have sometimes felt that handwringing about phones in class was always misplaced, because it faulted technology for a reality that was not its fault.)

Because we are never fully attending when we are in class. We are passing notes, yes — but we are also daydreaming, looking at the light climbing the cinder block walls, the hair of the girl in front of us, our own marginalia that we doodle and act out. The worlds each student (and teacher) create in their minds are far more real than the one we are physically inhabiting together. Teachers worried about the distractions of technology seem to want to return to the garden — where they could pretend everyone was attending, because everyone knew the moves and agreed to detente, as long as the moves were enacted. The propped book, the empty but correctly-directed gaze. Maybe it’s just harder to pretend now.

Maybe the real challenge of synchronous online teaching is to determine if what we are doing is teaching, or the maintenance of a picture of teaching: a simulacrum. Susan Sontag — in another age of images and “telepresence” — noted that “the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads — as an anthology of images.”

But has there ever been a world of the classroom beyond an “anthology of images”? After all, the pretense of coming together in school is usually to share impressions and interpretations of texts we read in common (SS again: “Print seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world”).

So if that’s the case, why can’t the act of sharing those impressions and interpretations likewise take place through images? What is lost in the move from embodied presence to virtual? Am I really about to rhapsodize about the sensory milieu of the several classrooms I have prowled in my time? Camo ball caps and Kanken backpacks? Or for that matter, JNCO jeans and Axe body spray? (I have been doing this for a long time.)

I am honestly not sure what I am afraid of losing.

But it is something about the elevated focus that I, at least, am called to bring to bear, whenever I am physically in a room with those I am trusted to care for as their teacher. Something about a sense of occasion that I, at least, feel prevailed upon to create. A responsibility to shape this space and time deliberately, despite (well, concurrent with) all the ways the other folks in the room are choosing to use it.

Related: I have learned to say ridiculous things in classrooms. Like, “Forty-five minutes from now, I am hoping you will be different in these ways because you will understand these two ideas.” This kind of teaching is the murmuring of incantations, really: sacralizing a time and place toward an end I, in generational tradition, think very worthy of such intention.

Were “educational objectives” ever anything but spells that hoped to shape the world to their measure? The world has a stubborn way of doing what it wants whatever we conjure. How silly to presume otherwise. What folly, the whole business of saying hey: attend to this right now, not to that. Trust me, it’s worth it. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. (Trust me? Really? On what grounds? Pedagogy is never not coercion, whatever it dresses up as.)

But I still feel like saying ridiculous things. Making that extravagant, dramatic gesture: casting the circle, holding the space, closing the classroom door and thereby closing this moment off from all the other ones. That is part of it. That is the beginning and end of it.

I guess I worry I won’t know how to do it when coming to class is merely joining a meeting, and then leaving a meeting, with two clicks. And when what happens in-between becomes just another input on the screen, where we all will receive thousands upon thousands of inputs, today and every day. Is my magic strong enough to overcome the dazzling wonder, but ultimate banality, of the medium? My mojo really only works face-to-face. Most mojo does.

Well, a classroom is a pretty uninspiring place too, however many posters you hang. Perhaps it is a difference in degree, not in kind. We’ll see.

Into the pixelated void we go. Wash your hands, and take a seat.

*Update: on the evening of March 11, my institution, like so many others, took social distancing measures.  Spring break was extended by a week, to be followed by a move to online teaching, and those who live in residence halls were “encouraged to remain home or off-campus”.

Image from GoodFreePhotos.

the fullness of emptying out

440px-Helianthus_whorlI love summer vacation. One of the most precious parts of a life in schools is the implacability of the schedule. In September, as sure as gravity, I teach. And right now, in the middle of the summer — unless I make a deliberate choice to do otherwise — I do not.

But I get tired on vacation. It is weird.

It is the perhaps the main reason why I have not taken the sabbatical — sorry, “Off Campus Scholarly Assignment” — my institution has offered me for the last four years. Even though it restores me to be away from school, time away from school wears me out.

And the best reason I can figure is because, on vacation, I do not have the needs of my students arresting my attention and my energy twice a week. All the vacation in the world cannot give me what I receive from my students. Or more precisely, from their demands on me.

How can rest both restore me, and make me weary? How can work both exhaust and sustain? It is a paradox.

It is a basic tenet, though, of most value systems — of human comity, of ethical conduct, of faith. Focusing on the needs of others will bring one joy and peace. I read this truth most every morning, in the range of wisdom scripture I try to tune my life to. If it is a paradox, many have certainly found it a productive one.

I wonder sometimes if my response to the insistence of my students’ demands is the actual core of who I am. It is certainly a lot of who I am. I am a creature of the rhythms of school, and have evolved to serve its exigencies. The tyranny of the clock above all. The intractability of the calendar. What is due, what is due back; what must be read, assessed, calculated. Class is always about to start. You will need to have something to say to your students, and something to ask them to do, when that time inexorably arrives.

I remember how uncomfortable this rock-hard truth was as a new teacher, driving into the city on Monday morning and frantically trying to construct something to do in the twenty minutes, the fifteen minutes, the ten minutes before class was to start. A life in school has taught me to accept that background, anxious hum as inescapable. And finally, to live with it as a constant companion, or even as a friend. Class starts in an hour — and yet I drink coffee. Class starts in an hour — and yet I respond to email. The state of impending-need-to-have-something-to-say is now a feature, not a bug. My mind is now working on the problem on the background.

Which really means that my mind is never not working on something. I am almost never fully at rest — if “rest” means completely disengaged from attending to the world through the eyes of one responsible for sparking others’ interest in it. Those close to me have noted a fundamental distraction in me. One that has almost always been there. I am always thinking about something, they say; I seem a little less fully here than I might.

They are partially right. But I am rarely thinking about things in a philosophical vein; rarely trying to figure things out. I am more often turning over what the world is presenting in terms of its qualities and, especially, its connections to other things. I am thinking about aspects of the world in the ways you do when you might be called upon to explain them, or contextualize them, or nestle them into an illuminating relation to other things. I am studying things and filing things, tentatively. My most basic internet-assisted move of the day is opening the Wikipedia app on my phone. What is this thing? When did it happen, and what was it in response to? To whom else did it matter?

Sometimes such research might seem a little like a defense against ever getting caught out not knowing what something is — a grad school trauma echo. But not really. Grad school is over. And I am one of those vanishing few academics who has nothing else to prove in the real world unless I choose to, whether to mentors or tenure committees or any other arbiter of whether or not I can claim to know something. (If any creature of the academy can ever really feel outside the echo chamber of status and peer-reviewed affirmation.) When I am researching now, I am researching for myself. And for my students.

Because students act differently when confronted by a teacher who has been thinking about the topic of the day really hard — and, by extension, how to share it with them compellingly. It is not just a response to an instructor’s intellectual power, though that might be part of it. It is always bracing to be around someone who is smart and passionate and articulate.

No, it is more about a kind of resonance in the room. A kind of vibration that a teacher can get started when he comes in genuinely connected to what is to be explored that day. Not in an abstract, “I love learning” way, but in an “I read this this morning, and found a connection to something in the news right now, and to my personal life as well” kind of way.

It seems incumbent upon the teacher to bring the initial spark of this kind of engagement into the room. To model it, maybe; there’s always a piece of education, at every level, which is mimetic, about showing children how to be and encouraging or requiring them to be and do likewise.

But for those of us who work with older students, college students, it can no longer be about crisscross applesauce and gold stars for compliance. Now it is about presenting a viable version of why thinking about the world is worth doing. It might be the teacher’s real job, beneath the accountability and the feedback loops. His only job, now that content is freely available and there is no longer a hierarchy of knowledge whose access points are solely controlled by the academy.

In other words, the teacher no longer has value because he is merely smart. But he has tremendous value if he is able to present a walking, living example of why being smart might matter today, and connect it to those with whose attention he is entrusted. Why learning might make life better, or even worth living.

Although to be very honest, I sometimes wonder if it is a character flaw. This need for others. The story of the successful scholarly life I was and am modeled reinforces that question. Why am I more likely to spend my energy reading an article and preparing to teach it than writing my own article? Is this evidence that I do not actually have my own voice, or my own things to say? That as one who cannot do…I teach? After all, careers open for those who sit down alone and write stuff, not for those who get in groups with their students to talk about stuff.

I acknowledge that I need the response from students that comes back from them when what I am putting out is worthy of their real engagement. And acknowledging that you need others in the world can be — often is — cast as a weakness. The great mind sits down alone and writes. Everything else is mere childcare.

While the individualistic, competitive, gain-getting world might bear that message back to me, I know it is not true. I venture that it is really a refraction of how repellent a patriarchal world will still find nurture, care, love — any admission of a need for each other, for interdependence. How determined it is to self-protect by insulating with the story of the great mind laboring alone toward enlightenment and beauty. That’s a lie (albeit a remunerative one). To need others is a dear and human truth. To acknowledge it is a step toward wholeness, not weakness. This I know is true.

So having the opportunity in my life to exist in connection with, and service to, others a few times every week — this requirement, this structure — is a core part of what enables me to continue functioning. This is not intended to be a dramatic statement. It is simply the case.

It is perhaps a commonplace expression of the spiritual truth I mentioned earlier, that I try to have into my life each day despite stubborn, solipsistic, human nature.

Or better to say: it is how I can begin to understand the principle of service to others as the path to one’s own salvation. I am beginning to understand an amplification of this in Cynthia Bourgeault’s articulation of a “kenotic” gospel. A life of “self-emptying” of selfish focus, the better to be an instrument of a greater intelligence and a greater wisdom in the world. (Or maybe I just love a big new word, and what it opens to view.)

I just know from experience that connection to the world is at the core of life being bearable. “No place at last is better than the world. The world is no better than its places,” wrote Wendell Berry.

The burden and the privilege of the teacher is to embody and share that reality with a group of strangers — other peoples’ children — reliably, on schedule. A few times a week, nine months of the year.

This is certainly a burden, because it disqualifies you from sleepwalking through your life. It is a privilege for precisely the same reason.

And it makes vacation a beautiful pause in one’s diurnal course. A precious season. But a brief and fleeting one, by necessity. Because the real relation — the underlying theme — is in the work. And it will be time to work again soon enough.

Image of Fibonacci sequence in the whorls of Helianthus (sunflower) from Wikipedia. Because they are awesome. Mystic rhythms. 

This Syllabus is Not a Contract

It has become quite fashionable for educators and educational institutions to describe their offerings as contracts with their students. This is completely inaccurate, and misleading.

I think I know why it is happening, though. I believe there is evidence that the value of education generally, and higher education specifically, is being gradually rendered suspect by forces that would diminish any public interest, or investment, in it happening at all. As public investment decreases dramatically, public institutions are made to argue for their value in the marketplace to each other, and to the public, even as the means to deliver that value dry up. Even as within and among public institutions, we are increasingly asked to compete for what scant resources we’re afforded. “Fighting over scraps,” as a colleague describes it. If your goal were to diminish the power of an institution, reducing the resources available to the institution and leaving its constituents to compete with each other in order to get them would be a pretty effective strategy.

Which means that it is increasingly incumbent upon us, the faculty, to convince you, the student, of the value of what we do and what we teach: to affirm over and over again why we are here at all, why we are worth our salaries and our offices and (sometimes) our tenure. We go to “contract” language to make those arguments because we are compelled to convince you that what we offer is of value equal to or greater than the value you are investing to access it and participate in it: your means, your time. We especially quantify that value as skills and credentials that will enable you to become gainfully employed. Measuring gainful employment and assurances of value can certainly be important parts of making sure that an education institution is focusing on the right things and growing in the right ways. But they are not the only parts, or even the most important parts.

So when we talk about education as a transaction, and a syllabus as a contract that regulates it, we assert that you are a consumer buying something in the marketplace, and we are affirming that its value is manifest and worth the price. That’s what contracts regulate, as far as I can tell, being neither economist nor lawyer. The house I type this in was built as a result of a contract we signed with a builder. We promised to give the builder money; he promised to create a house with specific qualities in a specific timeframe. He delivered the house; we delivered the money; we went our separate ways, more or less satisfied with what we had negotiated but clear that what transpired had been more or less what was promised.

This encounter that you and I are about to embark upon is very different. One of the main reasons is that you know, to some degree, what I am “putting up” — you are about to read one way of describing it, in my syllabus — but I have no idea what you are. Putting up. I can quantify the expectation of what you SHOULD be putting up, in time you’re expected to spend preparing for class (and our institution does — read to the end), but that’s not much of a stand-in for “what you’re bringing to class,” is it. ASULearn, our content management system, can log what readings you access, when, and for how long, and it will — but it can’t say anything about what you do with those readings when they are open on your desktop.

Note the similarities between our situation and what clients, patients, and students do in relationships with caring professionals generally. Doctors, counselors, teachers, pastors, and others who care professionally have control over what they are putting out there, or trying to. They have no control over what is done with it. The physician can tell a patient to quit smoking every six months for decades, but cannot know if the patient does; the counselor can prescribe meditations and reflective writing, or the pastor daily scripture study and prayer, but have no knowledge over whether those suggestions are followed. There can be no “contract” when what one party is “putting in” is so variable, so obscured, so unknown.*

So we might say that the syllabus you are about to read isn’t a contract, because I can’t know what you’re bringing to it. I am building a house, but I don’t know how much you are willing to pay for it. Even though you have “bought” it anyway, from our institution, through your tuition payment — and you will reckon its value based on your perception of whether or not it is solid, whatever you actually “pay” for it.

And I acknowledge that this might be where the house contract metaphor breaks down, actually — because I’m not the only one building the house. We’re building it together: a core ingredient of every time I teach this course is the specific experiences and viewpoints of the students who help create it. Which is why it ends up so different, with every section, every semester. Its value is constant; its qualities are not.

Really, the whole notion of our work together being a transaction of different things of value is troublesome. But these are dominant terms we are given to understand what we’re about to do — and whatever their shortcomings, they do allow me to wonder a little about what students who gain “value” from their work here bring to it. So let me do that.

I assert that the most important quality to bring to this experience is an utter, unguarded willingness to take the readings, and the ideas they contain, on their own terms. To truly learn from them by letting them teach you.

It is a little odd that I should need to say this — because presumably we come to institutions of higher learning precisely to gain access to ideas and perspectives that we couldn’t get to in our homes or our hometowns. It costs a lot to be here; it costs a lot to maintain a separate space for learning, away from home, and to live and thrive here while we are experiencing it. Shouldn’t what we find here be strange, alienating, thrilling, terrifying? Different?

But many times students are frightened or otherwise off-put when a curriculum gives them something different from what they can get at home. It is threatening or disorienting, as all new experiences are, until we learn how it works and are changed by it.

I want to affirm that the ideas you’ll encounter here are going to be strange, and therefore challenging. I also want to affirm that they weren’t chosen just to frighten you. They were chosen because, in my best estimation, and that of other people like me who have similarly devoted their lives to making these determinations, they are Worth Your Time.

Learning these texts deeply, taking them all the way in, will transform you in highly productive ways. One of the constants of all students everywhere is that they do not know yet which ideas are most worth examining; where they should spend their finite time and energy most profitably. I have to ask you to trust me — and if not me personally (who of course you do not know yet), then my credentials; then the trust the institution has seen fit to put in me to choose wisely what you should attend to; then the existence of a scholarly tradition at all in this field, which you will understand better and be able to participate in after our time together, if you just accord it attention and willingness to regard it on its own terms.

Sometimes the ideas and perspectives you will encounter here will directly contradict the ones you have been raised with, or the ones that you have nurtured in your own value system, which I know many of you have already been cultivating deliberately and passionately as adults for some time now. (Higher education certainly did that for me: challenged what I was already sure I knew and had faith in.)

I want to affirm that the truths you hold which are worthy of your devotion will survive this experience, and be deepened by it. I base this assertion on my own journey, as well as those of many of the hundreds of students who have gone before you in this course. This doesn’t mean that some of what you currently believe won’t be changed as a result of the work. But what is worthy of you will remain, transformed into something better and more reliable. This course does not have a mandate to change your heart, only to broaden your mind. But many have found that one has followed from the other, in ways that make faith more integrally connected to action.

The kind of willingness to learn I am describing here is mostly unobservable and unknowable to me. I cannot assess it, quantify it, or otherwise grade you on it. But I know that students who bring this willingness will usually manifest other, observable behaviors: attendance, participation, engaged and respectful attitudes toward colleagues and me, energy and respect. It does not ALWAYS look like that: some of the students whose willingness is deepest say the least in class, and there are many ways of learning that I seek to respect and nurture. But generally, I’ll know it, in the ways I need to in order to teach well.

If I don’t know how you’re engaging, I may ask you. If I see evidence that you have missed something important, I may point it out to you. I may suggest a different way for you to use your language, or draw your attention to something I think you need to attend to more. If I do that, please know that I am doing what I was brought to this institution to do; if I ever do it in a way that discomforts you, I am happy to hear and discuss that. But I also understand that some of what we need to learn is uncomfortable, and that there is no way to learn it without being put out into the cold, so to speak, until we grow into other ways to be. I will not shirk from that part of the work — though a considerable part of both of us might want to — because I want to be the best teacher that I can possibly be. You deserve no less.

So before our time together starts, please understand that we’re not signing a contract here. We are not about to have a predictable, measurable value exchange. We can’t know what each other are bringing to the table thoroughly enough to call it that. Even though things of great value are about to be put into play. Our energy and our time, yes — but also our trust, our sense of what is of most worth and what is most sacred: ourselves.

It is perhaps better to say that we’re about to embark upon a shared journey, and I’ve been asked and trusted to guide you on it the absolute best I can. You’re on the journey too, and have a responsibility to shape what we do together, where to go. I have done my best here to outline what I think that usually looks like. I may have missed or misstated something; I am still learning how best to guide such journeys, and hope to for the rest of my life.

Thank you for joining me. I will do my best to be worthy of your trust, and your investment in learning and expanding yourself. I invite you to bring all you are to this work as well, so you may be similarly improved and, perhaps, transformed.

*This is one of the reasons that efforts by hospitals and insurance companies to quantify the effectiveness of doctors in the mortality rates of their patients has been so roundly rejected by the powerful associations of physicians that speak with one voice for them. It is also one of the reasons why the similar drive to talk about teachers’ effectiveness in terms of their student’s test scores is misplaced and harmful. Though note that the change to what a teacher’s “value-added” is has been almost completely accomplished, which says much about the relative power of teacher and doctors in the world to shape the realities of their work.

The Grim Pedagogies of “Hereditary”



(Kinda spoilery, sorry – go see it!)

Believe it or not, the most memorable moment for me in horror movie of the year Hereditary is a relatively quiet one: a mom speaking to her son.

Annie looks hard at Peter, both in profile. And suddenly something true, but horrible, erupts from her lips: she says something a parent is never, ever, to say to her child. And she claps her hand over her mouth, lightning-fast, desperately trying to stuff it back in — but of course, she can’t. And then something else unspeakable comes out, and again she claps the lid back on. Mouths are supposed to say what we mean for them to say, but instead sometimes say what’s true. The performance might win Toni Collette an Oscar, so convincing is the impression that the truth wants out of her, despite her will in the matter. She is a woman possessed, in small ways long before large ones.

I read the film as a long meditation on who knows what about things that actually matter (not many), and who gets to have a say about it (no one we meet, in the film’s leisurely two hours). Many others have worked over, with remarkable speed, how aptly writer and director Ari Aster locates this meditation in a dysfunctional family drama; how it’s a relationship story almost before it is a horror story.  I am drawn to it as a meditation on how what matters to an older generation gets shared or not, with the younger. In a word, how it’s also a story about pedagogy.

Pedagogy is, after all, about relationship. The word derives from the ancient Greek paidogogos, the name given to the trusted slave in well-off homes whose role was “child leader.” An older one who guides the younger through the day, keeping them safe and indicating what is worth attending to and what should be avoided, bit by bit forming a new self through the million micro-decisions that characterize intimacy. Teaching is transmission. Hereditary is about what deserves to be transmitted and what does not, and the ways that decisions shape possibilities, or their lack, in long echoing succession down the generations.

Like so many films I am attracted to, Hereditary is an oblique “school movie,” in that some important stuff happens in and around school. School, per usual, is so overdetermined in our collective memory that barely any of the family’s two children’s experience there needs to be fleshed out. A droning teacher declaims to rows of bored students, some of whom enact a “discussion” while the rest zone out or daydream about sex and weed (nothing new there — with one exception, below), or do their own more important work until they get “busted”. The real action is under the bleachers at lunch. In an unimaginative expository touch, the text being taught in class that day is Homer’s Iphigenia, sacrificed in the Iliad to the gods for the greater good.

The peripheries of school are more interesting sites, where important action goes down. In at least two instances, a threat actually lurks outside the school’s perimeter, like a vampyr not yet invited in, waving or incanting at a distance with intent that ends up being sufficient to penetrate school’s containing membrane. And Charlie enacts one of the earliest cues that all is not right with her smack in the middle of school property, in one of the undersurveilled areas outside a classroom window that I understand school safety experts are beginning to refer to as “zones of negligent privacy.”

But perhaps the most powerful role that the formal pedagogical space plays in the film is how it allows itself to be finally violated. Some have noted how genre pictures, especially “elevated horror,” succeed by simultaneously honoring their tropes and audience expectations and subverting them. My own favorite example of this is the first Paranormal Activity film, where (spoiler alert) the unspoken promise that daylight has some marginal prophylactic effect against demons is violently smashed. What is supposed to only happen at night suddenly happens in plain daylight, mid-afternoon, the benign hour of stories on the TV and waiting for the kids to get home.

Similarly, in Hereditary, the presumed “safe space” of the classroom is progressively violated, until Peter’s possession occurs in full force at his desk, during a lecture, before his horrified classmates. Assaults on the boundary of the classroom start early. A bird smacks into the window, breaking its neck; a reflection in a cabinet window reveals someone else looking back (Oculus taught us how unsettling that can be).

But even It Follows, which also played with our expectations of safety in school, didn’t go full Grand Guignol right in the middle of third period. Peter’s transformation, and its timing, above all signals the most deeply disturbing aspect of possession films: the heedlessness with which malevolent forces take what they want, when they want it, from the humans they possess. Nothing in the world cannot be made to conform to the school schedule: but a demonic possession is not of this world. The horror of the possession story is that bodies will be broken and torn, used unspeakably, maybe right here, right now.

The deepest horror might be the helpless, aghast stare of the teacher in whose room — on whose watch — the transformation goes down. “Are you all right, Peter?” he impotently asks, his face contorting into the slow-burn “Spielberg face” of abject terror this movie so delights in. The class all turns and stares (the worst school nightmare, for all of us: Did I say something stupid? Have I wet my pants?) but can do nothing about what happens next. The teacher is revealed as just one of the gawkers, another looky-loo who never leaves his assigned spot in the front of his class, as rigidly his as each students’ desk is theirs.

School is a slow-motion horrorshow, after all, for many. For most. As Howard Nemerov wrote,

Each fall, the children must endure together
What each child also must endure alone:
Learning the the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That world invisible and visible
Bow down before it…

For an educator, there is special horror is seeing children brutalized by a force “arbitrary and peremptory.” The victims of Hereditary’s curse do not know why they have been picked to endure this, and there is no escaping their fate.

But is it too much for we teachers to understand ourselves as similar agents of inscrutable but demanding forces, requiring dreadful sacrifices of our students that are unknown to them, but delivered — as in the note Annie finds in one of her Mom’s occult books — with the promise that the reward will be worth the sacrifice?

I had my own “Annie moment” last week: a taboo truth sprung from my lips, and I couldn’t put it back in. Chatting with other faculty about how to respond to course evaluations, I observed, “The one thing that all students have in common is that they don’t know what they need.” (There was a long pause, and one of my colleagues ventured, “I think you may have been doing this too long.”)

While perhaps briskly expressed (student evals, after all, can give valuable feedback on how to improve as instructors, if regarded correctly), there is an inconvenient truth at the root of of my blurt. Good teachers (coaches, directors – all paidogogos) know what needs to be done next by students, and its relationship to discomfort and struggle. They know what can be done assisted, what can be done repetitively, and what should be expected to be done alone. All that ZPD stuff. And every coach I have ever worked with must explain to their athletes that there is a difference between hurting and being hurt. Hurting is training. Hurting is growing. Hurting is learning.

If our students, or other charges, are on an inexorable path toward learning — toward being irrevocably changed as a result of their time with us — then it seems nice to help them understand why this hurts now, why you can’t budge on that expectation. But not necessarily required. Ultimately, they have to trust us. They don’t know yet that we are right.

Hopefully we earn their trust in enough small ways that they let our judgment about bigger things – like their discomfort — carry the day. But at the end of the day, even if we don’t, that does not mean we are wrong. It is, after all, a school truism that the exact classroom practices that students complain most about (small group work and role play, first among them) are the exact practices that lead students to the most transformative learning experiences — a realization that sometimes shows up at the end of the semester on course evals, but often doesn’t.

Does that mean we should stop teaching that way? That we should only do the funny lectures, low expectations, and lots of movies that students rate highly? Of course not. Because we know what they need, not them.

But that’s a hell of a responsibility, and one that, if carried casually (as I think my colleagues suspected me of doing) teeters on the edge of abuse. Of course we must heed our students’ responses to our teaching — but because they tell us whether we have proved ourselves worthy of their trust when we ask them to suffer in the name of growth. Not because they know what they need better than we do.

Hard truths come out, and do their work. Hardness in and of itself, though, is not truth. In Hereditary, Annie is revealed to have been playing her role in a grand design that was set in motion long before she had a say in it. That truth is hard. Pedagogy, for all its claims to transformation — the high-modernist, social-engineering fever dream of a new world, calving out the next generation of adults when they are still children — is ultimately a game of reproduction. The best critical work in education now reveals how and where we remain complicit in a design for replicating existing power structures. We didn’t start the fire – “no man” did (thanks Odysseus) – but we still make it burn.

For an educator, then, the grimness of Hereditary feels familiar. Violence is wrought on young people we cannot protect, often right in front of us, in the spaces we promised would be safe. We enact rituals of subservience and catastrophe we didn’t even know were possible, let alone involved us. Those who seek to comfort us end up needing us for their own ends, and using us until we are all used up — and then, new vessels appear, to watch us be cast aside.

The horror is in the hideous truth, spoken plain, for once. We stand aghast, like so many characters in this film — horrified before we know what horrifies us.

But we will know soon enough. Deep down, we already know.



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