Tag: teaching

Elliot Eisner: my teacher

I learned tonight (Jan. 10, 2014) the sad news that Elliot Eisner has passed away. Elliot was my masters advisor at Stanford, and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his wisdom, his support, and his care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He invited me to stay and do the doctorate with him, and I turned him down, clumsily. We were expecting our first son, and I was scared about being so far from our families on the other coast. I remember a passionate talk with the head of the teacher ed program about whether or not to leave Stanford. “A degree from Stanford carries a certain…cache,” she warned. Unimaginable, to pass on such an opportunity. (“He’s already got a degree from Stanford,” murmured a smartass friend, in my defense.)

And I left badly, deciding too late for another guy to take my place – silly and immature. Still a regret of mine, but one I worked out, both with the other guy at AERA a few years later, and with Elliot when my job in Chapel Hill took me back out there for a week in 2005. He was already sick, then, but gracious: happy to have me back in his home, talk about what we did and what I was doing. Unfailingly interested, and always supportive.

In hindsight, I am very glad I left when I did. I moved on to other terrific mentors, and a life far from Palo Alto. Leaving Stanford was an early step in my ongoing effort to grow in my own self-confidence and self-worth beyond the meritocratic rat race that the academic life can cultivate in us. We can be driven by who we know, who we publish with – all the shibboleths and status signifiers that make an academic conference like the Oscars, sometimes, showbiz kids making movies of themselves. I was quite susceptible to that grift, and was well-served to get clear of much of it. There are firmer grounds upon which to build a life, for me.

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

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

Image from Stanford’s web site.

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letter not-to the editor

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

– c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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