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.



time to die

lionsgate-0d88-df85-571d-3c64-01c4-7-full-image_gallerybackground-us-us-1501867156609-_ri_sx940_(UPDATE November 2019: This post served as the core of a paper I published in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing on Halloween. It’s a great theme issue on “Curriculum of the Monstrous” — free access, check it out!)

I love horror films more than anything, and vampire and zombie horror most of all. Horror is a fever dream of possibility, an opportunity to try on the most extreme iterations of story and see what they might refract back upon the everyday humdrum. And vampires and zombies are such different tropes, but they have in common the opportunity to consider anew what it is to be human, or not, and what the space in-between might constitute.

That’s why The Girl With All the Gifts is consuming me right now. It is that rare horror movie that is about school, sort of. But it is also about how we choose to respond to a moment of apocalypse: how our deepest instincts for defense and self-preservation might actually hasten our end, and prevent our inevitable evolution.

If you think we are fin-de-siecle in public ed right now — well, you might want to have a look at it. You probably haven’t seen it, so some exposition is in order.

The movie opens with a bizarre school-morning ritual. Melanie, about thirteen, sits on her bed counting on her fingers. Suddenly the lights come up, revealing her to be dressed in orange institutional wear and living in a prison cell. She hides the two photos she’d tacked to the wall – a kitten, a forest – and pushes a wheelchair outfitted with wrist, ankle, and head straps into place before the door. Through which door come two fierce leathernecks, in full gear and pointing assault weapons at her. She cheerfully greets them, by name; one keeps the rifle trained on her head while the other locks her into the chair, and we see her wheeled in a line with twenty other similarly-secured children into a windowless, poorly-lit room, where their chairs are secured in rows facing a teacher’s desk. Class is about to start.

We learn subsequently, in a series of expert reveals, that Melanie is outside London, twenty years after a rampant fungal infection has transformed most of the population into lightning-fast, savage “hungries” whose only volition is to prowl the countryside for flesh to sustain them. Melanie, and her classmates, are also “hungries,” but a second-generation strain. They seem to retain human personalities — capacity for interaction and cognition — but also transform into ravenous monsters when they smell human flesh or wait too long between feedings. They are being subjected to research in a heavily-fortified military bunker by Dr. Caldwell, who believes their hybrid nature makes them a promising source for a cure. But her research requires their vivisection, and the reduction of their brains and spinal cords into a vaccine.

“School,” then, is nothing more than presentation and demanded recall of a series of “data pairs, just names and numbers. Content is not really relevant, is it?” It’s a probe into their minds to discover who and what they are by their capacity to respond. According to some obscure logic, their school performance relates to when and if they’ll be selected for slaughter.

The primary teacher for these sessions is Miss Gustineau. Another soldier, but young, pretty, compassionate. To see her interact with these students, to see her choose to offer them stories instead of the periodic table, is to hear echoes of a hundred “hero teacher” movies, where an ingenue armed only with love and energy enters a blackboard jungle and eventually transforms it, but not before she is punished by the old guard for her heresy. We feel like we’ve seen this movie before.

But we haven’t. Because even though Gustineau’s relationship with Melanie seems like warmed-over “Dead Poet’s Society”-style essentialism at first, the mystery of Melanie’s motivations won’t let it be. Yes, Melanie melts at Miss Gustineau’s loving hand on her head; yes, Melanie spins her own story about how she might protect Gustineau and spirit her away to a safe place far from here. (Gustineau reads the students the myth of Pandora – the way the gods, who “never forget,” unleash a curious woman on the world, who opens the box that unleashes all the evils and pains on the world that humankind endures. But Pandora also releases hope: the energy to persist in the face of annihilation. Which of “all the gifts” Melanie will ultimately embody is what we watch to discover.)

Gustineau loves Melanie. But she also comes to learn the essential ambivalence of what she is encountering in Melanie. In a midnight conversation with Parks (the leader of the soldiers), she confesses that she knows Melanie loves her as well, but that it was her fault for “not getting out of the way in time,” as one might a wild animal lunging to bite. She pulls on the scavenged liquor bottle and hands it back — weary, compromised, as in-between and damned as anyone else in this story.

Gustineau’s pedagogic liberties are deeply troubling to the ruling paradigm about “hungries.” Central to Dr. Caldwell’s understanding is that they are nothing but evolving parasites — capable of “exquisite mimicry of observed behaviors,” but still not people.

But she isn’t sure. She doesn’t know if she’s witnessing the devolution of humanity or its transformation in Melanie and her classmates (and therefore also doesn’t know if slaughtering them for research is murder or harvest). And Melanie, unique among the characters, seems aware that she lives on the cusp of something new.

That’s why Melanie prods Caldwell into this exchange:

I don’t want to be a hungry.
But that’s what you are. In dissection, it’s very clear. The fungus is wrapped around your brain like ivy around an oak tree.
But I can talk. I’m like you.
You’re not like anything that’s ever existed before.

Tellingly, she quizzes Melanie, the brightest among the children, with logic puzzles, including Schrodinger’s Cat. How those in-between worlds wish to belong to both. But they cannot be both. No one can.

From the jump then, the film is about the in-between places. Melanie, the doctor, everyone, has left one identity behind but has not yet fully assumed another. How each character deals with “something not like anything that has existed before” will be the crux of what plays out going forward. “All the gifts” will mean some that are agonizing to receive.

Girl is a different kind of zombie story. So much energy in this genre is usually spent on the horror of realization that former life is over, and detailing the gory forms that the transformation assumes. Zombie stories usually end with victory over the pathogen, or complete absorption of one world by the next. It’s a minority of films that try to explore what happens during the evolution of society that endures a zombie insult, let alone feint toward any hybridity in what will take its place. (Note that the 28 Days Later series has, as its second film, 28 WEEKS Later — though even that conceit of aftermath reveals itself to be a sequel in the truest form. They’re BAAAAACK…). How people understand the moment they are in — what struggles are still to be decided, and which are long since settled, and who knows — that’s the drama that unfolds.

The endgame of humanity is already in motion, we come to realize, and has been from the start. It’s crucial that the zombie infection in Girl is fungal, not viral: it seeks symbiosis with its human host, not annihilation and domination. While Girl, like so many zombie stories, is a little fuzzy on when humans are attacked for food and when they are colonized for transformation, none of the humans we come to know die of the pandemic itself. Dr. Caldwell has been the walking dead since five minutes after we met her: she sustains a deep cut on her hand when her lab is overrun early on, which leads eventually to the sepsis that as good as kills her. (We also discover at the end that another of Melanie’s skills is her capacity to hold her breath. That’s what the counting was at the beginning; that’s what enables her to survive Caldwell’s last-ditch effort to subdue her for science.) Parks is also infected at the end, but chooses death by pistol over transformation. The other humans are red-shirts, dispatched uninterestingly in the uneven second act.

So maybe there is a way to survive into the new reality — as long as you are willing to accept survival on different terms than may have occurred to you heretofore. Only Miss Gustineau survives, in her human form, into the new epoch. And she does so as a specimen in an aquarium (the airlock mobile lab where Dr. Caldwell planned to make a last attempt to find a cure). She is locked in carefully and deliberately by Melanie, to ensure she survives the spore release that infects the entire world.

But she is not silenced. Melanie rallies the feral second-gen children, including many from her first class, to sit on the ground in front of the class door as Miss Gustineau puts up a whiteboard and begins class over the loudspeaker. “We’re going to continue getting the new kids up to speed,” she says, as Melanie snarls at stragglers to sit and be still. “Everyone else, if you can just be patient while they catch up with us, okay?” “Can we have stories?” asks Melanie, from the back of the crowd. “Later, “ she answers — like Scheherazade spinning tales to ensure her own survival, like Peter Pan’s Wendy trapped to tell stories to the Lost Boys. “There’s time.”

“There will be lots of time,” agrees Melanie, smiling. fin. It’s an ending that is “startlingly humane, particularly for a film focused on the decidedly inhuman.”

But we are definitely left wondering which part of Melanie calculated to keep Miss Gustineau. Is she a pet? Or a future experiment, the tables turned? Or is she a human connection, an insistence on Melanie’s part to maintain her humanity through the love she feels for a dear teacher? The film leaves us fumbling; Melanie’s final smile is enigmatic, and bottomless.

— — —

Perhaps public school is dying. Perhaps it was mortally wounded by a cut sustained early in the struggle.

The Nation at Risk report, maybe, when the national psyche most vividly realized how easy and productive it was to punch down at schools for whatever ailed it. Or maybe it was NCLB in 2002, and the grinding fifteen-year war of attrition it waged on public schools by both defining what their success looked like and ensuring that they never could achieve it. Or maybe it was Waiting for Superman, which cemented in the public mind through top-notch production values and rhetorical massage that big public schools were money vampires that sought to pad teacher pensions at the expense of students, and that the only stake to drive through its heart were charter schools.

Last night my college screened Backpack Full of Cash, a terrific new documentary that landed powerful punches about the privatization of public school. It was a ripsnorter. People were *fired up.* But I couldn’t help think it was a seven-year-late rejoinder to Superman: the first counterpunch I’d seen that matched it pound for pound, but the crowd had already left the building.

And I feared that maybe the fight for hearts and minds has been over for years. The rhetoric of competition and meritocracy was too strong; the picture of fat-cat unions on the pubic teat too indelible, by now. Even as I small-group-discussed the film’s valid, factual points, and even as I plan to teach my future teachers next month about privatization and neoliberalism and vouchers and the whole megillah, I wondered in the back of my mind if we are not already dead. If we have not already sustained the cut that has killed us.

And so I watch The Girl With All the Gifts, and find myself asking difficult questions for a champion of public school. Especially one who believes in the promise of direct action; of the arc of justice bending; of the innate wholeness of our culture:

  • If public school is dead, what might its evolution look like?
  • Does holding on to old ideas about what victory must entail doom us to die by our own hand?
  • Is it worth surviving in a fishbowl, cut off from what we grew to expect as our future?
  • If that also means we get to keep the megaphone on, and get to keep teaching?

I don’t think this is accommodationist talk. I welcomed Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny into my classroom this month, and required attendance at his campus address. I believe that history holds lessons, and that we can resist and maintain a true relation to the elements of democracy that doublespeak and fascist muscle have historically obscured and eventually dismantled. I do.

But I also wonder if we’re sacrificing ourselves on our the altar of our own paucity of imagination about what a future might look like. If we are inevitably moving toward a hybridity – “something that’s not like anything that’s existed before” — are we well-served to pretend we are not? Or are we — especially we teacher educators — only preparing folks who, when the change comes, will elect their own death (burnout, walking wounded, attrition) over staying and thriving in the new reality, on its terms?

In that same conversation where Caldwell tells Melanie about the ivy wrapped around her brain, she also shares her horrific origin story:

Dr. Caldwell, what am I?
We don’t really have a term for it.
But…you know where I came from? Tell me, please.
Where all babies come from, but by a slightly eccentric route… (You and the other children) were found in a maternity hospital. The mothers were there too. They were empty. Cored. All their organs devoured. from the inside. the mothers were probably all infected at once in a single incident, then the embryos were infected as well. Through the placenta. They ate their way out.

Not the first chestburster to be described (though not depicted, mercifully) in film, but a wholly different one. This time it’s a human cycle interrupted and requisitioned to other ends. This time a sacrificed host is consumed on the very terms that it negotiated with its offspring since sexual reproduction began (“I will feed you with and through my body”). The violation, then, is one of degree and not of kind: the evolution requires one moment of disequilibrium in its growth cycle, in which a first-generation host is sacrificed so that the second-gen may leap into being more than anything before or since has ever been. Broken eggs to make an omelette.

I wonder if we, uniquely, are that generation. Those whose work, whose energy, whose very substance will ultimately be consumed on the way to our kind becoming something else. If we’re not part of a larger metabolism that demands all our victories be pyrrhic, in order to establish rich ground for something else to grow and thrive.

This is becoming even more fin-de-siecle than I had expected. I apologize. I hope it does not land as nihilistic.

But all the humans in Girl, save one, essentially perish from a lack of imagination. Dr. Caldwell breaks herself upon the single-minded, modernist quest for a cure. Parks breaks himself against an unwillingness to consider mutation as a viable option for survival. The only one who does come through, intact, is one who allows herself to imagine into the possibilities of connection with something (a hungry) that everyone else insisted was inhuman (a ‘friggin abortion,’ in the guards’ parlance).

One whose connection was tentative and filled with doubt, but who sustained it nonetheless; who read the stories to the children, even if it meant her own punishment. The one who held out hope that her unique voice and way of being in this strange and horrifying new world would be sufficient, in the last reckoning, is the only one for whom it was.

All Gustineau is afforded in this new balance is her voice, tremulous over a loudspeaker. Her voice, and an assembly of children who, to varying degrees, will attend to what she has to say. This isn’t the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus, with a literal standing ovation for a life in service to other people’s children. It’s the obverse, the bizarro. The teacher is rewarded for her teaching by the surgical excision of all aspects of her life except…her teaching.

And yet she will persist, and thrive, by all accounts. The last scene opens with her asleep on the floor. She wakes to Melanie’s knocking on the window — this is clearly not the first morning of the new regime. A tear trickles down her cheek.

What does she mourn? That which is lost and past on the way to becoming found, now? To quote another imagining of a cruel future, where we persist in different form:

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

And yet she does not die. Like the million teachers before her she gets up and pulls herself together, and goes out to meet her students. Class is always about to start.

Perhaps, then, we shall die. We who cry repentance at the end of times; we who champion the public and the pluralistic in a moment obsessed with privatization and fragmentation.

Or perhaps we will not — if and only if we can hold to what has brought us this far, while releasing so much else. Perhaps we are diminished in the terms of our survival, almost unrecognizably.

But we will still be around. And we will still raise a voice, to teach.



dance together, dance against

IMG_4563Power wants your body softening in a chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

– Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Joanna and I went to a contra dance in rural eastern Tennessee last night, on a whim. Well, her whim, and thank God for it. She’s on a listserv and asked me to it. Don’t say no, she asked, like you always do. I didn’t — because she’s right, I always do. I am becoming someone who’s always tired at the end of the week, because oh the kids and oh the job. What’s on Netflix. But I want something else in our life, and to have something else you must do something else. So we did.

Hoedown’s the wrong word. Smackdown might be better. An entire weekend of dance: blues on Friday night, and waltzing on Sunday morning, but the whole of Saturday devoted to contra, the super-energetic, quite-American couples line tradition. Eleven AM to eleven PM: five or so dances, with a waltz at the end signaling a brief break for hydration and recomposure. Folks camped out or stayed in tiny cabins on the beautiful property. A potluck appeared while we were there. And bands and callers rotated in and out, astounding players who were nonetheless exhausted by the core of fifty or so dancers who had come to dance longer than you had come to play.

The evening was transporting. Like a Baz Luhrmann movie, I thought first: miles of twinkling lights crossed the roof of a hanger-sized open-air dance floor, with open walls overlooking pastures and one covered with enormous quilts. But then I thought of a fiesta in a Garcia Marquez novel; of the Festival of San Gennaro in Little Italy, two weeks ago; of the fair at Rome Catholic High in the upstate New York of my childhood, whose spinning midway could be heard and seen from my bedroom window and always signaled the end of school. All those places where night and light and occasion bring people out of their houses, down their stairs, to a new place that’s theirs and not theirs, to do a thing that’s alone and together all at once.

How can I capture the alone togetherness of the dance, the together aloneness. Robert Putnam used the phrase pejoratively, to describe our decaying social fabric; so did Phillip Jackson in 1968, about elementary school classrooms’ role in that decay. But I saw a celebration of individuals who came together to be in connection, but each autonomous and aloof in the ways they wished to be. Alone and together are both part of community.

Eye contact in contra is a tricky thing. My kind but firm teacher, a man in his sixties, told me the first rule was not to look down: there’s nowhere to go but your partner’s face, for a few seconds. There was exactly one person in attendance whose face I gaze upon comfortably at close quarters, and she tended to be elsewhere, by design (though she always came back, also by design). So I had to make do, with lots of new faces, one after the other.

There are so many ways to see someone you don’t know up close. Some opted for a formality and fixed smile, a presentation; some were flustered from the exertion and barely saw you, so engaged in their own experience; some joined in my instinctive laughing about my clumsiness and inexperience. But most didn’t do that last thing. We weren’t there to note my lack of skill, make me feel better by acknowledging and minimizing it. We were there for the dance, which was bigger than any one of us but needed our full attention to exist. It needed us to subsume ourselves into its exigencies and prerogatives. There isn’t time right now to make you feel better about how uncomfortable you are. We all need you to keep moving.

It became clear that you can’t learn by watching. And also that you can’t learn by doing — not in the sense of trying to practice a few basic moves, then put them together when called to. The only way I discern to learn the thing is to throw yourself in and be carried, until the way that life courses through the lines also carries you. Most of the forms did that: got metabolized into my body while there was still time to enjoy them before they changed. Some didn’t. But that was okay. Another one was coming, right now.

For any of this to work, a lot of other people had to be doing it. Had we all been neophyte as I, it would have been chaos. The system allowed some naive participation — but not much. It depended upon new folks coming back and getting better at it, so that they’d be part of the organism when more new folks arrived and needed a competently-held space for them to join too.

And oh, how those who knew what they were doing, did. Watching as much as I danced (well, a little more), I started to see all the ways that people were finding themselves, creating themselves, on the floor, in mutually-constituted connection with others. The flourishes, the dips, the spins. The claps and stomps at the outer rim of a turn, for no one but themselves. The ways that younger folks called older folks to passion, and older called younger to rectitude. (But not always: age, like gender and experience level, was amazingly fluid on this floor.) The ways connections became authentic precisely because they were mannered. The ways we are more than we are apart when we are together.

I didn’t think about Snyder’s book, and the quote that leads up top, until halfway through. But there’s so much to consider. The dance of democracy requires us to be out of our chairs and our houses, to meet each other. To be awkward at first, then practiced. Eventually, to be fully who we are within its structures. The night was freezing, but many of the dancers were bare-armed, barefoot, perhaps conceding to a fleece here or there. The heat wasn’t in the air or on the floor: it was in the movement. In the moment we made by showing up.

And finally the music stopped, and most of us repaired to a blazing bonfire under a three-fourths moon and cold stars. How interesting the conversations I overheard: familiar, but not anything like what you’d expect from folks who’d been as intimately connected as we’d been for hours. Reserve and apartness re-established, some. It was friendly, for sure, but different. This was a new space too. We’d been made more than we were by our willingness to be together. But there would still be work to do to sustain that connection out here in the real world.

As it must be, I think. It is always uncomfortable in community (“Be as courageous as you can,” Snyder’s last lesson) — but less so as we learn to be comfortable in the discomfort. Our connections to each other are sustained by our willingness to bring our energy to the forms we’ve inherited. Dance, school, voting, marching: we’re made more than we are by their potential to bring us together toward beautiful common purpose.

But eventually we go home, to ourselves. Where we can stay, if we wish. Only we can choose to keep returning. To find ourselves with each other. To grow less naive, more able to offer a hand to the newcomer. To sustain the pattern of civilization and democracy, for our own sakes and for others’, in every way we must against the insults that history predicts for us.

We are the change we wish to see in the world. Beneath the pavement, the beach. We must find the forms we love and trace them, embody them, make them part of who we are, with each other. Now more than ever. Enliven them with what only we can bring.

The tune begins again.



down to the bones


The only work that matters, goes away. And only that which goes away, will stay.

This is the nut of my weekend, when I returned after more than thirty years to my elementary and junior high schools in upstate New York. My son’s college visits took me there for the first time since we moved away in 1984, and it felt important to go to them. As important as driving by the old house, the market, the church.

Until it became more important than any of those. The house I grew up in, after all, has been someone else’s house ever since we left it. It changed the locks, in every sense. I’ll never have reason or entitlement to enter it again, because it’s moved on. And of course, I left the church in nearly every way too — this one and all like it, long ago. None of these places are mine. They continued to move into their futures, without me.

The schools have moved on too, of course. But they remain mine. As public spaces — deeply charged with the lives we’ve lived in them, but still not ours — I had as much right to enter them yesterday as I did when I was seven, or ten, or twelve.

Public schools are everyone’s.

And they are no one’s. This is the note that was loudest.

I saw the band room where I became a singer. The very spot where the chorus teacher leaned across the piano and scared me into owning the sound I could make. We were one on one after school; I’d been cast in a big role in the musical; I didn’t think I could do it, scared senseless. Maybe she was too, afraid that rolling the dice on me was going to come up snake eyes, and the show was sunk. Or maybe she’d been swimming through junior high crazy for ten hours already that day, and it backed up on her and she let the frustration and exhaustion out.

In any case, she came up off the bench and across the upright piano at me, right up into my face. She let the edge into her voice and implored me for the tenth time to put some air behind it, to take a chance and really make a sound, to stop dithering and mewling. She ordered me to sing.

And shocked by the sudden grit from someone I was used to being gentle — by that sudden shift from teacher to frustrated human — I did. And I found my sound, the center from which I’ve sung ever since, the core from which every music I’ve made since has emanated.

There was the room, there was the spot. There was probably the same piano. New carpet and paint; new everything except the architectural bones that belie a sixty year-old building (once the state builds you a building, your going to live in it until it crumbles beneath you).

And no plaque, No X on the floor.

Here a life was transformed, in a throwaway moment between a tired, hungry teacher and a kid who doesn’t know what he is. No one remembers it but him. But from it came everything else — everyone he’s touched as a teacher and as a musician, a thousand people and a thousand more, a career in education and a life in music, both leaning into a future that believes that bread upon the waters is the only currency that will ever really spend.

Well, that wouldn’t have fit on a plaque, I guess.

Just as well. We would need so many plaques, were we to hang even one. Our schools’ walls would groan with their weight. There would be no room for the mission statements, for the safety protocols, for (still) the precious student paintings, the poems, the really good essays.

The whole of school is a private odyssey of unimaginable urgency. Every moment has the potential to lift, bend, or end some part of a future real person’s life.

Teacher, you don’t know which moment. You’ve already been part of hundreds of them, and you’ll never know.

I’ve got a dozen more stories I could tell right here, before my coffee’s done, but it’s better you think of your own right now. Mr. Foster. Mr. Gellar. Say their names, if only to yourself. Mrs. Earnshaw. Mr. Cowles. The teachers who might not remember you, but who made you what you are, took you down to the studs and built you again.

Mr. Back. Mrs. Barras. Mrs. Williams. Mr. Roth. Who showed up living their lives and offering slivers of themselves to you, so you could make up what yours might be. Showed you another way to be a grown up, not a parent but bearing traces of your first connection. The parents your parents couldn’t be.

Mr. Wilbur. My God, Mrs. Izzo. Mrs. Otis.

They touch us and make us, and then it’s spring and it’s hot and there’s final grades and shows and ceremonies and caps and gowns and we all escape into the summer, jettisoned into a pause, a punctuation, mercifully. (Year-round school misses this important part. We all need a space to breathe before the next sentence begins.)

And then we all start it again. None of us — students, much less teachers — know which moment mattered. The whole of the practice is putting up the harvest for later, storing it against the future. The students show up again on the first day in August, and so do we, both at the peak of readiness. The table overflows, the kitchen’s stifles with all the boiling, knives flying, everything sticky and sweet. We labor for the season we are offered, until the time to labor is past. We won’t be around when the jars get opened. When we find out what took.

I didn’t enter either school. That matters too. I couldn’t, in either sense. It was a Sunday. Locked up tight. And there won’t be a moment this morning to head back and sweet-talk a principal into letting me walk some halls, slam some lockers, reckon if the ropes in the gym were as high as I remember.

No, I just wandered the playgrounds and peeped in every window I could reach — not many, in these massive multistory buildings with their huge courtyards. Peeped and populated the rooms beneath their posters and under their tennis-ball-footed little chairs; populated them with who we were, what happened there, down to the bones.

The security footage they review today will be puzzling. Who is this guy casing our classrooms all Sunday afternoon, who we will never see again.

He’s just a guy who happened to come back. But you can’t come back. It’s the moment so many have tried to name.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Time held us green and dying, though we sang in our chains like the sea.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on.

My child has disappeared
Behind the schoolroom door. And should I live
To see his coming forth, a life away,
I know my hope, but do not know its form
Nor hope to know it.

Time to go wake up my son.

Boats against the current.

Begin again.

blessed unrest

teacher agonistes

5:00 AM on the first day of school and I can’t sleep. Some things never change. Even after a life in school, the night before the new year starts is different. It’s all possibility, all the way down. Everyone has an A, even me. All of the stories wait to be told again…or left in their boxes, so new stories can be heard for the first time.

I didn’t teach over the summer for the first time in eight years. I needed the time away. Needed the silence after so many days of feeling like my voice had to be heard, because I was scared of what would happen if it wasn’t. I had begun — again — to fall into the trap of thinking that if I hadn’t said it in front of a whiteboard, it hadn’t been taught. Forgetting — again — that teaching and learning might happen in the same space, but they aren’t connected causally, not always, not even usually. What I say isn’t the same as what you learn. Or if you learn. Forget that, o teacher, and become a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal. That was me for a while there. Jingle jangle.

I know I’m being too hard on myself. That’s part of teaching too: it’s a prereq. Once you really start to know the stakes of what you get up each morning to go do, how can it not be. But the stakes — the investment student attention represents — the awesome responsibility of being listened to and trusted as having something worth learning to share — can make us shrill, wound tight, hoarse from barking over and over again what we know needs to be barked. And the more we bark, as any dog knows, the less we are heard.

So I have more voices in my curriculum this year than ever before. More opportunities for my students to hear from other perspectives. Readings from more diverse authors; expectations to show up for more of the plays and movies and speakers and conversations that my astoundingly rich university offers up, nearly every week. More requirements to go out and hear someone else’s life and bring it back to class so we can know what it says. Or don’t: treasure it in your heart, learn the thing no one else can, in a not-class moment when no one else will ever know you were listening.

It’s more important now than ever, student, that you be open. Important that when we read On Tyranny, and visit with its author in September, we open our eyes to the transformations that are moving under our feet. That we mind what we can accommodate, and decide with resolve what we never will, no matter what. This is not normal. We shall not let it be.

I have finally found a way to invite FARM Cafe into our classroom: our town’s wondrous pay-as-you-can restaurant (commitment in community-building, experiment in living what you believe about the way the world should work, utopian fever-dream that is somehow in the black). My students will eat there, volunteer there, lurk and loaf and think there. Listen to what they hope and fear about the people they meet there. Reflect on what it means about the stories they bring to their work with other peoples’ children.

Here’s another change: I’m not going to tell you what the last night’s reading said this year. I’m going to answer your questions about it, sure, and I’m going to hold a space for you to learn what others thought it meant. But I’m going to value your ability to figure it out for yourself more than ever before.

Because I understand that when I retell you what you worked your hardest last night to figure out, I am really telling you that I don’t trust you alone with your own mind. I am really telling you that until I say it, it’s not worth knowing. I am going to act on that understanding by letting you do what you came here to do: change. Grow. Develop new capacities, not just show off the ones you’ve had since grade school.

For that to happen, I’ve got to let you work as hard as you can. Let you be uncomfortable at the edge of your competence to work, and let myself be uncomfortable at the edge of mine (to let you).

I’m opening my classroom to my world this semester too. Inviting any of my faculty colleagues to join my class, whenever they wish, without notice, and asking if they’d consider extending me the same courtesy. As I wrote them last week:

This expressly isn’t for any evaluative purpose, or “professional development,” and certainly not to write peer observation or any such thing. I don’t promise to show you an exemplary class and don’t expect you to have one ready for me to see (I assume we’re already impressed with each other).

I have simply realized that I am energized and relaxed by witnessing other people do what I do too, and I think it’s pretty perverse that the first thing school does with competent teachers is ensure they never get to see each other work except to evaluate each other. So that stinks, and I’d love to change it, for my own well-being. I’d also like to start to create and model for my students the kind of teaching community that I think they will need to sustain themselves when they hit the schools. We need each other more than ever. (No one else is coming for us.)

I have always had a thing about closing the classroom door before class can happen. My students must think it odd. As if the door were some kind of airlock; as if we couldn’t do what we came to do until we got the pressure right. I talked game about the closed door reminding me of the responsibility I was entrusted with to make good decisions on their behalf. That was true, and remains so — but it’s not the truest part of it. I just hated the feeling of leaking into the hall, of being heard out of context, judged. Seen doing the thing I spend my life doing.

I have come to understand that I need it. I need other people in my teaching. Not just students. Especially not students: it’s not their job to do anything but learn, and whatever they might do to sustain my work is incidental to their reason for being. No, I need my teaching to leak, to be witnessed by those who do it too. And I need to be around others who do it, if only to taste that singular teacher luxury of inhabiting a learning space I’m not primarily responsible for maintaining. I don’t know how it works, I just know it does.

Yeah, it’s a lot. I didn’t need to do all of this to my curriculum this year. It was all in the can, and my student evals were sky high. Why mess with it? When you take into account how much those evals matter to my own professional well-being, it’s sort of foolish not to just push play again on the same jokes from last year, go to sleep, and wake up when it’s Christmas.

But I just can’t, and if you’re a teacher, I think neither can you. Doing that is a living death, for people like us. Because even if it gives us “more time to do research” (or watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), it removes us from what Doris Santoro wonderfully calls the “moral rewards” of teaching. The rewards of being present at the creation, or the uncovering, of something genuinely unexpected. Something precious that couldn’t happen without us showing up in that particular way on that particular day, then clearing the lane for the students to do what only they can do.

The unaccountable, the surprise, the peripheral, the jouissant: name it as fancy as you want, but it’s what we’re in the business of cultivating and honoring. If the curriculum is tight, it’s stale. If you’re positive that you know what you’re measuring and how to make it materialize, you’re not really teaching, because no one is really learning. It’s a drill, not live-fire. And if you’re not fully living into your part in it today, right in the place you stand, they can’t either.

Martha Graham gets quoted a lot on creativity, but the whole conversation doesn’t. Here it is – with Agnes deMille, while struggling over choreography of Oklahoma!:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

And I have to give Sondheim the last word:

Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see

Have a great year, y’all.

Image from Smithsonian Magazine, with thanks.



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