Writing in Smoke

1643fig1Forgive my discontent—I’ve been grading for seven days straight and am fighting an overwhelming sense of irrelevancy that started with one simple event.

You see, the word “want” has a double meaning. As a verb it’s “to desire.” As a noun—particularly in nineteenth century texts—it means “a lack.” So, when Emerson says, “The reliance on property… is the want of self-reliance,” it’s clear he intends to communicate property reduces our self-reliance. He goes on to explain that we depend upon the things we have instead of upon ourselves. Having property, we need not rely on our own skills, talents, and acumen.

You see the problem of mistaking one meaning of “want” for the other. If you think “want” is a way to say “desire” (the noun), you might think Emerson favored property, that the desire for property is a desire for self-reliance.

I offered just this explanation to a class, and they nodded with understanding. They heard me. Their comprehension of the paragraph broadened, and a student explained how it made sense, how this notion fit with all of Emerson’s ideas. A few wrote it down, but a very few. After all, they understood, and the moment would be memorable.

Later I gave the class, in advance, passages that might appear on a quiz. One of those was the passage above. On the quiz I asked, “What does ‘want of self-reliance’ mean?”

Over three-quarters answered “a desire for self-reliance.”

It’s likely my state of mind assigns too much meaning to their error, and it’s an ugly thing to shame students. And I’m ashamed I’m doing it. I like these students, a lot. Yet, no frustration is greater than feeling inaudible. Between papers I’ve formed cynical theories for why they would miss this question. I have 15:

1. Anything significant appears in multiple formats, different media, and in duplicated settings, and I only explained the confusion between “want” and “desire” a couple of times.

2. Why write anything down you think you’ll remember? Why remember anything you can find elsewhere? Is memory of obscure information even important?

3. These days, everything is redundant, or—if it isn’t—anything that isn’t redundant isn’t important.

4. As consumers we choose products we want and need. We know what’s important.

5. Data that takes more than three seconds to load requires patience, and I take so much longer.

6. The more we seek and praise ease and efficiency in learning, the harder real learning seems.

7. Pleasing—even when it’s insincere—is the way to go. Easier to appear than to be.

8. Text and uninterrupted voice are linear, and words travel like boxcars on rails you can’t get off. I love to ride the rails but my tastes are peculiar.

9. Electronic media is bifurcation, every track splitting into two new lines every moment.

10. Until Emerson includes sound, images, movement, and links, his work will seem to come from another dimension where sound, images, movement, or links don’t exist.

11. If you can’t guess what’s inside frogs, you have to dissect one. Explaining Emerson is dissecting a frog. The frog rarely survives.

12. Cursors slide and I want students to bear down. Their pens and pencils barely graze paper and a trillion miles of curlicues knot with themselves. It’s all one Jackson Pollock, lovely but inscrutable.

13. Information passes, a parade barely visible beyond the screens interposing between us and the world.

14. The spotlight I stand in isn’t any more hot or cool than any other illuminated space vying for attention.

15. You don’t have to understand Emerson or like him to fulfill his warning that property–electronic property–might own us.

None of these explanations help at all. I’m not a crowing Jeremiah. Quite the contrary, in my imagination I hear colleagues accuse me of ossification, of denial, of being a Luddite, of not adapting to the material I’m given, of not being resourceful or inventive enough, of teaching material inappropriate to the grade level, of having a bad attitude, of teaching outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant texts, of taking tacks no longer viable, of removing myself from the world instead of immersing myself in it, of not following where the puck is going, of mistaking different for worse, of not being student-centered, of undervaluing new ways of learning, of focusing too narrowly on deficits instead of assets, of falling hopelessly behind.

Over the last week or so I’ve examined and accepted all these personal faults. I feel them… and acutely too. I know how strident I sound, and I’m sorry for it. But I can’t help myself. I also fear the future. As a teacher, it’s my job to pass on skills I’ve learned to value as part of my own self-reliance.

Or do I have that wrong too?

I guess I’m ready for a break.


Filed under Ambition, Apologies, Arguments, Doubt, Education, Essays, Exams, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Memory, Modern Life, Opinion, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Worry

17 responses to “Writing in Smoke

  1. hhstheater

    For want of anything substantive to add, I just want to say I enjoyed this post. (It’s been a while since I’ve read Emerson. I wonder if he would think of knowledge (of want vs. want, for example) as “intellectual property.” Does information and/or knowledge belong to us?)

    • dmarshall58

      I run into this issue with Shakespeare frequently–a word we know the meaning of might have a different meaning in his time. I’m sure you know, sometimes layers change the original and give actors a new line to perform. That could be the case here too, I suppose, except that the rest of the passage (and the rest of “Self-Reliance” altogether) makes the meaning of “want” clear. Even if you change its meaning in this context, you would have to deal with it in many other contexts… and not just in Emerson but also in Thoreau and Dickens and… you get the idea.

      David Marc wrote a book in the late nineties called
      Bonfire of the Humanities where he described the transformation of texts by students looking for contemporary meanings in older texts. He regarded these readings as adaptations rather than interpretations, and that description comes closest to student answers attempting to bend “lack” into “desire.” They were certainly clever, resourceful, and inventive. I wanted to give their authors credit for using their brains well, but I wondered what happened to their memory of discussion and whether they think of discussion as material at all. The next time a student appears after an absence and says, “I didn’t miss anything yesterday, did I?” I’ll do as I always do, swallow hard and ask him or her to collect notes from a classmate, but it troubles me. Though I know it’s sometimes time to cut bait and accept students are just different in this digital age,I hate giving up on time-honored educational practices without some fight.

      Anyway, I’m happy to have some free off to think about better ways to hold students responsible for discussion… and convince them it’s worth doing. –D

      • hhstheater

        I agree completely with your disappointment is your students’ failure to absorb the lesson of how even familiar words can fool us into thinking we know what they mean now or in the past.

        My question was a silly/paradoxical one: if Emerson suggested that property got in the way of self-reliance, and if knowledge can be thought of as something that becomes our mental property once we “own” it, would complete self-reliance require that we not rely on the “intellectual property” we acquire during the course of our lives and educations. I’m pretty sure that Emerson would not have thought of knowledge as property or if he did he would likely have made that an exception to the rule.

      • dmarshall58

        I’m just catching up to replying to comments…

        As my eleventh graders would undoubtedly love saying (because they do love saying it), Emerson is contradictory and hypocritical. I don’t disagree with them… though I wonder sometimes if they’re trying to wriggle out from his accusatory tone. My reading of Emerson is that he doesn’t really believe in self-reliance but in testing suppositions, conventions, and all received knowledge. He has no objection to someone accepting the wisdom of the ages so long as he or she deals with it as new. And, in a similar sense, his trouble with property was largely with inheritance. He found a way to support capitalism like most Americans. He didn’t mind the fees he received for speaking, apparently.

        I don’t know what he said about words themselves. In many ways they are a invisible convention, something we’ve long accepted and stopped seeing. I’ll look into it. Thanks for commenting. –D

  2. Joe Smolko

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. The important thing is that you care; your students appreciate that.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks, Joe. I need to hear that occasionally. Most students at independent schools are appreciative of the demands you make of them, and the rest can be convinced they ought to want a challenge. There’s a creeping laxity in their attention to discussion, and I’ll have to think of ways to address that and to explain why they ought to want to listen and remember better. Thanks for commenting… best to you and yours. –D

  3. Oh man, I want to respond to this post, but I’ve got to get ready and meet with a mom and a daughter who need help getting along in the world. I’ll be back though. Very thought provoking post. Cheers, mate! Here’s to the holidays.

  4. Well, David. Your plaint reiterates some of my own feelings about current state of knowledge, what it means, how it’s deployed, promoted and what education might be. I deplore the current obsession with bringing electronics into the classroom – it creates lazy teachers and indifferent learners. Why should contemporary learners care about possibilities of analysis, and its value, when a requirement for the ‘correct” answer is so easily met by the scrolling through a vast incoherent storehouse of “facts”.
    Okay, I know this is very Luddite of me, but then I, like you, am the product of different attitudes of learning, teaching and what it might mean to “educate”.
    I hope you take the time now to rest and recharge yourself. Be well! G

    • dmarshall58

      There’s a great moment in a novel called Feed, a sort of dystopia where students have the internet implanted in their brains so they don’t have to trouble with computers to carry around. One of the students says something like, “Why do we have to go to school anyway? We have it all with us all the time–if I want to find out when George Washington gave the Gettysburg Address, I can find out instantly.”

      Sometimes it’s tough to know what students do and don’t know. They’re very reluctant to expose their deficits (even when they do recognize them) and many seem to prefer keeping questions private, looking for answers on their own to keep up appearances. The students I teach are excellent thinkers–they aren’t fact bound at all–but I do wish they were a little less sure of knowing or being able to discover everything online.

      Thanks for your comment. –D

  5. Very thought-provoking. I think there is a larger issue here not even related to technology. Emerson still has a lot to teach us, and reading him not only teaches us that substance, but also helps students understand those nuances of meaning you were teaching with the want/want dilemma. That fineness of comprehension and understanding of the intricacies of usage in English will distinguish the outstanding communicators from the indifferent ones. I hope you can keep doing what you’re doing in the face of criticism, especially from colleagues!

    • dmarshall58

      During student conferences, a parent suggested that Emerson is entirely irrelevant to contemporary culture, and I had a mixed reaction. I’m sure he’s right–without my presenting Emerson to my students, how long could they go without ever hearing him addressed or even mentioned? On the other hand, maybe he shouldn’t be so irrelevant. Maybe he does have something to say to contemporary society. I like to think so. The trouble is feeling a little like the boy with his finger in the dike. Many of my colleagues have given up on Emerson as too tough, too antiquated, and too untranslatable in contemporary terms. They agree with that parent and find Transcendental ideas naive, dated, quaint. How long before I also give up the ghost (pretty literal in this case), go along with a new curriculum, and leave Emerson behind? –D

      • Thomas

        Reading that first sentence of yours above, I was left slack-jawed.

        Quite honestly, in today’s political, social and economic climate, I don’t understand how ANYONE could claim Emerson is irrelevant to contemporary culture. If ever there was a time for people to read Self Reliance, this is it.

      • dmarshall58

        People probably believe someone has said it better than Emerson, that whatever relevance we find in his work doesn’t need to come from him anymore and that the language and expression of his ideas is hopelessly outmoded, impossible for a modern audience to “translate” (though it is English). I get that argument a lot, and I’m not really sneering at it. Saying he’s irrelevant so goes a long way toward making it so, and I wonder myself if I’m just being stubborn teaching people like Emerson and Thoreau… especially when so many of my students now find them incomprehensible.

        Anyway, I didn’t mean to bash the parent, so much as express frustration with being outmoded myself. –D

  6. Ciara

    I really don’t care what people might say, understanding the words of a text in the context in which they were written is not simply a duty to the text, it is a joy. The Oxford English Dictionary (yes, online!), is a wondrous book for this purpose, as well as for purposes of reading texts written by lovers of language.

    The role of property in this case does worry me, however…

    • dmarshall58

      I love the OED and try to direct my students there, but I’m always surprised how many unknown words they just let pass. I wasn’t big on looking up words in high school either, but I did my homework on the kitchen table and could always say, “What does… mean?” My students have so much to do and do much of it alone (or with only FB as company), they might mean to look up words later but never get around to it. More distressing to me is that I can help with meanings of words they think they know (like “want”), and still they get stuck on their earlier misapprehension. Maybe my voice has slipped into that Peanuts register where it just makes whaan-whan noises to them. Thanks for commenting, Ciara. It was great to see your name here. –D

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