look out kid, they keep it all hid

Teaching is intimate, personal work. It’s about content – transmitting knowledge, helping students acquire skills and develop attitudes – to be sure. But it is also about connections between people: the sense of students that they are seen and cared about, the presence of a grown up in their lives who shows a way of being in the world and is not a parent. This means that being taught is as much about becoming someone different from who you were when you started as it is about knowing something different.

The developing human’s capacity to join its culture by embodying the actions it sees other members completing is unique. It’s been called “mimesis,” which Merlin Donald (2005) distinguishes from mimicry and imitation in some relevant ways:

Mimicry is the deliberate reduplication in action of a perceived event without careful attention to, or knowledge of, its purpose. The actor’s attention is directed to the surface of the action, with varying degrees of success. Some examples are a young bird duplicating the song pattern of its conspecifics, a parrot mimicking speech, or a human mimicking an accent in an unreflective manner,

Imitation is a more flexible, abstract reduplication of an event with closer attention to its purpose. This implies varying degrees of success. It is common to discriminate between means-ends imitation and what Tomasello (1999) calls “emulation”, which involves achieving the result or goal of the observed action but not copying the observed means to this result. Primates and young children often emulate, without successfully imitating, an action.

Mimesis is the reduplication of an event for communicative purposes. Mimesis requires the audience to be taken into account. It also demands taking a third-person perspective on the actor’s own behaviour. Some examples are children’s fantasy play, the iconic gestures used in a social context, and the simulation of a “heroic” death during a theatrical performance. (Donald, 2005, p. 286)

I break these distinctions down to identify “mimesis” as the capacity to assimilate what someone else is doing into your own action for deliberate purpose. It means getting inside the heads of those who will see you doing something and imagining what they will think. It’s copying, like the other two, but gone way way meta: not just doing what you see done, but breaking it down to its basic components and using it to cause a particular effect.

This is deeply relevant to understanding how regular people turn into teachers: to figuring out, as an education professor, how to talk to my students about the rich and sometimes harrowing stories they bring to class about teaching episodes they have been part of as students. Those stories have either showed them how they want to to do this work or, emphatically, how they don’t.  How do I best support my students in their process of transmuting what they have seen in countless hours of being educated into their own role as educator? I am eager to help them think about those experiences as models of ways to do this work, but also to avoid overdetermining outcomes by insisting they will inevitably become like what they saw. And there’s another layer, of course, because I am also a teacher, and any work in an education class is inevitably both about the “thing you are learning” and the pedagogical choices you are making.

This is why I am very interested in moments when extraordinarily formed people talk about how they got that way. It’s the unexpected pleasure I had viewing Marty Scorcese’s Bob Dylan biopic No Direction Home over the last few days (it streams on Netflix). It’s a fan’s detailed exploration of how a Jewish kid from Duluth, Minnesota became the most influential popular figure of the 1960s.

For the younger among us: Dylan’s impact on the world we inhabit really can’t be overstated. His was a persona that the children of post-war conservatism embraced when they went looking for someone else to be besides the product-consuming, job-holding-down, duck-and-coverer their parents had shown them (“Bring the wife and kids. Bring the whole family. Yippee“). His sneering, acid lyrics, in large part, invented irony for a generation boggled by the perfidy and madness on display in their nation’s several follies in Vietnam, in the segregated south, in the White House. As Wikipedia has it, “Dylan invented the arrogant, faux-cerebral posturing that has been the dominant style in rock since, with everyone from Mick Jagger to Eminem educating themselves from the Dylan handbook.” I am as burned out on boomer worship as any other aging Gen-Xer, but respect here must be paid. How did he come to be that person? What mix of intention and accident created Bob Dylan out of Robert Zimmerman?

In Scorcese’s hands, Dylan’s formation story is about content and connections. Perhaps befitting a director obsessed  both with naming his own influences and preserving the past so that the present and future can continue to grow from it, great swaths of the first 90-minute episode are dedicated to cataloging what Dylan was listening to and HOW he was listening to it. On the first point, we learn how Dylan’s first record was an impossibly square side by Johnnie Ray who nonetheless sounded to him like someone “with a strange incantation in his voice, like he’d been voodooed.” It’s the first glimpse of Dylan’s unique capacity to hear in sounds that his contemporaries dismissed as old and outworn something timeless and endlessly strange, and therefore renewing and vital. For Dylan, it’s the connection a performer can make as much as the song itself he’s singing. It helps explain, perhaps, Dylan’s capacity to write songs that sounded 200 years old that were still completely contemporary. It’s the core of Dylan’s sensitivity to the emotional power of what Greil Marcus names “The Old, Weird America” in his own fever-dreams about these same records, their impact on Dylan’s sensibility and, in turn, the rest of the culture.

Back to mimesis: it seems to me that Dylan is not copying these influences so much as metabolizing them. His relationship with Woody Guthrie’s music seems the strongest example of mimetic process.

These songs sounded archaic to most people. I don’t know why they didn’t sound archaic to me. These songs sounded like they were happening at the moment to me.

Others can talk better than I about just how Dylan digested Guthrie (see Marcus’s dizzying book, for sure) and the other influences he found on the first records he borrowed (and sometimes stole) from better stocked libraries than his. But what I most note is how wide open Dylan was not just to the techniques and liturgies of those traditions, but to their energy and intentions. He’s not just “reduplicating the action of perceived events” – it’s a lot more intense than that, this process of dismantling what affects you and reusing it with an eye to how its new intentions impact those who are watching you do it.

The process continues as Dylan finds his way to the hothouse of Greenwich Village in 1960, for a few transformative months of playing and listening to others play in endless evenings of “basket-passing” poetry and music happenings in the boho coffeehouses. He notes that some performers have something behind their eyes that suggests they know something the audience does not; something precious and hard-earned that, therefore, is not to be given away easily. He hits this theme repeatedly in the long interview that strings the film together: how he learned not to give it all away, ever; to be cagey, careful of whom you trust and who you let see how you do what you do, what allegiances and commitments really make you go.

Maybe that’s why so many of his contemporaries describe him as a shape-shifter: an opportunist who could identify a chance for something big to happen and deliver himself in the version that would best meet the possibility. He created his character endlessly – the assumed name, borrowed from far-away Wales; his bogus, ever-evolving bio, about both sitting at the feet of the greats and still being wide-eyed in wonder at the Big City, where he “saw his first banjo” (ha). Even his observation that he himself did not fully understand what the ranting free-associative lyrics he was writing meant. His wildly-meta comment to girlfriend Joan Baez that his critics will figure it out later belies the earnest intention and certainty with which he delivered them at Newport and elsewhere. (Baez tell the story herself, at 1:00 here – and her Dylan impersonation is deadly, maybe the last one we’ll ever need to hear.)

Deep in the second episode, D.A. Pennebaker describes the process of filming Dylan without relief for his 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, and marvels at Dylan’s capacity to become an actor who easily accommodates a documentary camera tracking his every move:

That’s what he’s good at: getting used to the way things are, knowing that time changes everything.*

To close this already too-long thing (no time to write a short thing, so I wrote a long one): I think Dylan’s capacity for mimesis gives us who help prepare teachers for their work some very sharp knives with which to help students parse and assimilate their own many experiences of being educated.

  • We can help them reserve the right to decide what in their life was important: which songs they heard, so to speak, had the “voodoo” in them and which did not;
  • We can help them realize their capacity to make themselves for the audience they’ll be playing for. We can empower them to create their own teaching persona which, while related to the engine of vocation and compassion that brought them to this work, is not the same thing.
  • And finally, they can learn a self-protective cageyness in the construction of role. And if someone asks them to do something ridiculous (like “suck on your glasses“) – they can know how to give it right back to them.

*NB – His critics – many his performing contemporaries – eventually derided this flexibility as “selling out,” the worst epithet (other, perhaps, than “Judas!“) they could throw at him.  But as one of them notes in the film, Dylan’s commercial success only called out how hungry they all were for some validation that their work was reaching an audience, that it mattered. Since admitting the desire for success would itself be a repudiation of the ethic of detachment from “all that” they claimed to uphold, all they could do instead was turn on the one who had made it happen.

Thanks to thezorch.com for image; thanks also to Phil Chappell’s terrific blog for hooking me up with the Donald stuff.

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