Category Archives: Humanities

Or What’s an Education For?

1425522-LOnce during a parent conference I found myself pulled into a dispute over an advisee’s mark in a freshman art class.

“I don’t think it’s fair they grade subjects that rely on talent,” the parent said.

Teachers know it’s unwise to contradict parents—understandably, they expect you to acknowledge their feelings, not challenge them. Still, foolishly maybe, I answered, “Every school subject calls for talent. Sometimes you’re developing skills you don’t have yet. Why should art be different?”

The parent answered, “It’s different because it’s not as important as other things.” I swallowed hard. I suggested that, since art was challenging for the student, she should spend more time working with her teacher.

The parent replied, “But it’s a waste of time… that’s just my point. She doesn’t like art, and she’ll never be good at it.”

This exchange sticks with me partly because I spent the next week developing counter-arguments:

  • People may regard art as “extra,” but the ability to think visually grows more and more essential in a post-literate world. Exposure to art seems especially relevant whether you’re good at it or not, and those who can “do some art,” have a serious leg-up in the working world.
  • What’s more, if we appreciate, value, and admire art, sustaining it relies on taking it seriously, ratifying its importance to assure its continuance. Whatever your tastes, who wants to live in a world without art?
  • Yes, receiving a high grade in art acknowledges special talent, but someone good at art deserves affirmation. Do you want to tell a student who makes an “A” in art that it doesn’t matter? Talent should count.
  • Even if art doesn’t count to everyone, students rarely like every topic they meet in school and learn even by struggling… perhaps particularly then.
  • Is the problem grades in general? What’s really in dispute is the mark. Without letter grades, students might argue less, worry less, and explore subjects that are not strengths and, hence, learn more.

If you follow this blog, you know which argument is most compelling to me. However, I have another reason for rehashing this exchange, a bigger lament, one encompassing our increasingly narrow sense of what education is for.

This spring, while trying to praise training programs in Wisconsin, President Obama joined my problematic parent in dissing art, specifically art history:

I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

The President’s immediate backpedaling and subsequent apology acknowledged, his vision of what’s needed from education and what’s not is ubiquitous, as is his position on education’s exclusively extrinsic purpose. He assumes all schooling must lead to “a really good living” and “a great career.” Every college degree must contribute to the economy, or else it is a failure. Lost is how education adds, intrinsically, to enjoying life and appreciating others’ talents.

As it happens, art students have transferable skills and typically find gainful employment even when they leave art behind. Supposing they didn’t, however, they still receive more than a positive feeling about their contributions to the GNP. Indeed, they may find more pleasure in creativity and aesthetic appreciation than those with really good livings and great careers and money.

Perhaps I should have said to my advisee’s parent, “If for just a moment you can put aside the mark and your resentment (which may be poisoning your daughter’s encounter with art and artists… but I wouldn’t say that) has she benefited? Can this one freshman class contribute to her larger sense of how diverse and variable learning is?”

I suspect I know the answer—you can’t convince people how to feel, after all—but I’d remember myself better if I’d been true to my own thinking.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Arguments, Art, Desire, Education, Essays, Grading, High School Teaching, Humanities, Identity, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Opinion, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Visual Art, Worry

Answering To a New Name

9719098440_575ae9edbd_oMaybe you remember getting lost as a child, that moment at the shopping mall or carnival when you looked up to discover a stranger instead of your mom or dad. I still occasionally feel the same disorientation, though the particulars have changed. I expect what I know and find something else instead.

Most recently, at work. As a colleague teaching in the room before me hurriedly gathered his materials, he responded to a student noting all the desks pointed in the same direction, toward the board.

“Test?” the student said.

“No,” my colleague said, “Probably some English teacher arranged the desks this way. They like that.”

I said, “Oh yes, we’re into that full-frontal teaching thing.”

Then it occurred to me, that period I was teaching U. S. Social History. I was a history teacher, not an English teacher.

Back in the hippy-dippy sixties and early seventies, when people asked teachers what they taught, they were supposed to say, “Kids.” Teaching was teaching, and the subject mattered less than relationships with students. I believe that. The fundamentals of encountering new information, thinking about it, and demonstrating mastery aren’t that different from subject to subject. The methodology may change—examining history and novels demand diverse skills—but the teacher’s role as a guide is largely the same. You know. You understand. You can do what they can’t yet. Your job is to instruct them in learning, to help them figure out how to absorb and explore what, a few moments before, was new.

Nonetheless, I quickly corrected myself after identifying as an English teacher. “But this is history,” I said, “I’m a history teacher right now.” I suddenly feared losing the students’ confidence. They might begin to question if I knew my stuff, and a panicked part of me shouted “Imposter!”

As an English teacher I come in with big ideas and hope the class will find passages and episodes to discuss them. But in history, I’m more fearful. If we’re talking about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson doesn’t come up, I know I’ve screwed up. Or, anyway, that’s how I feel in my imposter moments—knowing my stuff is critical. My history department chair says “No.” He says, as long as I teach them to think about the implications of historical detail and to grasp the way historians assess it, dates and events matter less.

If the colleague who teased me was covertly sincere in his commentary about the desks, maybe he doesn’t make a distinction, as he implied English teachers love to lecture the way history teachers, as the cliché goes, love to impart the Story of Civilization. Yet any history teacher who describes the past moment by moment had better be a brilliant story-teller. Any English teacher holding forth on his or her interpretation had better be brilliant.  Most of the time, spilling secrets and playing “Guess what the teacher is thinking?” fails. While I hope I know more history than my students, I also hope they’ll engage the detail they encounter, perhaps even empathize as a reader might.

For many years, I’ve been co-teaching a course that combines American history and literature. I teach the literature half, but I’ve traveled through the national story several times. What I gained from watching the other teacher wasn’t the information she knew—though she knows an amazing amount—but her skill at encountering it, her knack of changing the angles on what students thought they knew, and drawing them back to documents and artifacts that spur fresh theories. It’s not simply stuff to her.

It will take some time before I answer to “history teacher” and perhaps longer to feel I deserve the title as she does, but maybe forgetting what I’m teaching is another sort of progress, the recognition that, whatever I am this period, I’m just trying to help.

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On Art

duchamp_nude.jpg Reprise…

Albert Einstein worked to unite the forces of the universe under one “Theory of Everything.” I wonder if one aesthetic umbrella covers the arts—music and sculpture, acting and painting, photography and writing…and everything between.

Probably not. Saying what art is includes accounting for performing arts and visual arts and arts we don’t all label art, but that’s not quite the same thing. The proof of the Unified Field Theory is rigorous and mathematical, but possible. Aesthetics seem murky. We might not know we have the answer. We may never agree.

And usually the receiver—and more specifically and perhaps unfortunately the critic—defines art, not the artist. It’s hard to accommodate both artist and audience. The observer or listener can study the product and assert what a poem or song or sculpture or painting or performance is. For the artist though, the process seems mysterious, perhaps even mystical. The impossibility of definition, paradoxically, defines the process.

William Carlos Williams said, “It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes, because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same time.” What he says of belief may be true of creation as well. Because discovery is central to creation, you only know it when you find it. Defining it later, like defining a belief, is hopelessly reductive, dubious. You may find a way to describe “it,” but that won’t say what “it” is. The descriptions can become the current mode of doing art—some tangible code to cling to—but they’re descriptions, conceptual rather than essential.

I’ve dabbled in most of the arts. I’ve acted and sung and played an instrument and made 2D and 3D art. I’ve written poetry, fiction, and (a term I loathe) creative nonfiction. For all that, I don’t have enough experience with creation to say I understand it. If I ever do, I may stop. The unknown is all the fun.

Having said so, I can’t resist venturing one probably pretty obvious universal aesthetic theory I learned from acting. Just as you can’t effectively play a character that isn’t in you, all art locates the universal in the personal and vice versa. To be clearer, I have to show something that you know too and do it convincingly. I have to show that I understand it and you must believe I do. You have to be convinced of my sincerity…even more than that, you have to be convinced that sincerity is my primary motive. An artist can achieve that state accidentally and/or intentionally. How it plays out in photography, opera, and abstract expressionism can be very different. But the effort to reach mutual understanding needs to be real. No posturing. No fashion-mongering.

Art isn’t about the skill, virtue, currency, or identity of the artist—truly great art makes connections over large spans of time and in disparate contexts…because it’s human. Being human, it can also be hopelessly subjective—artists and audiences and critics may never agree what’s good—but only the connection counts.

Art can have an agenda—”political” and “art” don’t have to be contradictory terms—but the passion behind a view and not the view itself comes first. Great political art moves you and may move you to action, but what makes something art and not propaganda is the artist’s need to express him or herself versus the need to have the viewer or listener think and act a specific way.

To finish with William Carlos Williams, ” It is not what you say that matters but the manner in which you say it; there lies the secret of the ages.” We may never have a unified theory of art—never mind a sense of what’s good or bad—we can only hope to know it when we experience it.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Criticism, Essays, Humanities, Meditations, Thoughts, Writing

Why Teaching Criticism Matters

When I talk to students about critical essays on literature, I try first to adjust their audience and purpose.  You are writing, I say, to another reader.  You are hoping, I say, to illuminate something specific the reader has not seen before.  Being a literary guide seems to make writing more manageable for them—it gives them direction beyond being commanded to write—but my motive is selfish.  Guides are more interesting than formalist drones.  I want their criticism to be purposeful.

In the January 2nd edition of The New York Times Book Review a number of smart people give quite different reasons for literary criticism.  The feature “Words About Words: Why Criticism Matters,” offers the views of six critics.  I don’t claim to understand everything they say—some pieces seem more lament or rationalization than justification—but they do make me wonder if teaching students how to write about literature could have a more profound function.

In arguing the importance of criticism, the Times authors seem divided over whom it might matter to.  If criticism matters, then who benefits and how?  Stephen Burn seems to see the critic as a valuable counterbalance to the proliferation of opinion on the web and elsewhere.  Katie Roiphe highlights the critic’s challenge to write, “Gracefully” and “protect beautiful writing” and “carry the mundane everyday business of literary criticism to the level of art.”  To Pankaj Mishra, “Literary criticism was always destined to turn into a kind of competitive connoisseurship—a parlor game,” but will be relevant only as long as it anchors authors’ works in cultural and historical contexts.  We need a critic, he says, to identify a writer’s “Particular quarrel with the world, the rage or discontent that took her to writing in the first place.” In each of these cases, the critic serves society.  Criticism, all of them suggest, is good for us.

I would have a hard time selling these goals. Many of my students are so immersed in popular culture that they do not know they are there.  Some do argue with the modern world, some seek beauty, some hope to spread understanding about peoples and times, but those students are uncommon.  And those uncommon students don’t always write reliably compelling criticism.  Extrinsic motives often contribute to stilted and reaching work.  Instead of engaging a text, they use literature for a higher purpose, taking a reader away from instead of into the authors’ words.

And I’m afraid to give students such exalted aims.  They most need to string together a few sensible and effective sentences, make discerning observations, and be themselves.

The more convincing portions of the Times article suggest organic, implicit compulsions.  I have many students who resemble the former self described by one of the authors, Elif Bautman.  She tells of time when she felt criticism superfluous, citing her understanding of Tolstoy’s rebuff of a critic: “The only accurate interpretation of Anna Karenina was a word-for-word retelling.”  I have students similarly reluctant to interpret.  They think we read too much into Shakespeare and Golding, Dickinson and Salinger and, in some sense, we violate authors’ intentions by breaking up the whole, proverbially murdering to proverbially dissect.

Bautman says her salvation was recognizing literature as a sort of dream where the author acts at least somewhat unconsciously, in ways he or she doesn’t entirely recognize.  If our own minds baffle us, authors might create literature beyond their own understanding… but not beyond careful guides.

Seen in this light, a dream interpreting critic enters into conversation with texts, contributing thoughts about meaning that enlarge rather than reduce the work.  Sam Anderson, another of the authors in the Times feature, puts it this way:

Our work is a kind of ground zero of intertextuality, in which one text converges on another to create a third, hybrid, ultratext.  This self-reflexiveness doesn’t make critical writing secondary or parasitic, as critics of the critics have said for centuries; it makes it complex and fascinating and exponentially exciting.

For every student reluctant to analyze literature, I have another who buys into criticism too ardently and writes papers arguing for seeing a literary work in a correct light.  They attempt tight legal cases aimed to establish, beyond doubt’s shadows, that THIS is what the author intended, that THIS is the true meaning or implication of this work.  Anderson’s perspective offers a valuable anodyne for both the skeptic and the zealot—the critic’s job isn’t to redefine literature.  Quite the contrary, the critic adds to the original, makes more of the work visible and significant.  Critical essays supply exponents.

Perhaps the most relevant part of the Times article was the statement of poet and critic Adam Kirsch, entitled “The Will Not to Power, But to Understanding.”  Kirsch goes beyond criticism’s effect on the work or even the reader.  Some critics, he points out, persist long after the literature they analyze, because, “They each show a mind working out its own questions—about psychology, society, politics, morals—through reading.”  For Kirsch, thoughts about literature are thoughts first, and truth, not interpretation, lies at the center of criticism.  When your purpose is broader, “You write for an ideal reader, for yourself, for God, or for a combination of the three.”

Call me crazy, but I enjoy papers written from that stance.  If I could get my students to see their interaction with stories, poems, plays, and novels with that sort of vitality—as a way to discover themselves and something bigger than themselves—their criticism might mean much more to both of us.  They would no longer be writing five paragraphs but true essays that, however flawed, seek revelation.

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“Winter Wonderland”: An Exegesis

In that last few weeks I’ve read many, many critical essays on literature, so I thought I’d offer this parody suited to the season.  None of the papers I read are really this crazy, but perhaps it says something about the critical essay form that it can be twisted this way.

Don’t worry.  I’m not serious.

Recent criticism of the song “Winter Wonderland” has focused on it as a work of faith—Nagurski called the poem, “A utopian examination of how the coldest and least lively season, naturewise, can be really pretty cheery” and R. Grange mentioned it in his respected collection of critical essays, Songs that Make Me Grin.  However, to see the work correctly, a reader needs to note its accretive fiction and the purposeful delusion that piles up like so many deep snow drifts.  Doing so leads to the same conclusion T. S. Eliot reached when he said the song was “more a work of doubt than faith.”

As Eliot pointed out, the initial question in the song really frames the entire work.  The first line asks, “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?” and the astute reader might ask in response, “Am I listening?  Of course I’m listening.  Wouldn’t I hear some damn sleigh bells if they were ringing?” The true question behind this seemingly innocent inquiry is whether the listener is willing to participate in an obvious fiction.  The song queries, “Are you willing to accept the sound of sleigh bells?  Conjure them now, if you will.”  If the reader is unwilling to conjure, the end of that first verse, “A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight / Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland” rings emptily, offering an unsubstantiated, entirely unjustified happiness. Who is to say “We are happy tonight” after all?  What is the basis for this so-called happiness?  All the reader has to go on is the “glist’nin’ snow” in the lane in the third line.  Is that enough?  What if the reader had to drive somewhere—because some readers work at night, remember—would glist’nin’ snow make them happy?  The aesthetic question “What is beauty?” also lurks like a creepy, half-inflated, ghostlike front lawn Santa.

Some readers undoubtedly will cry for suspended disbelief, but the poet, it seems, expects just such skepticism.  The next verse makes no effort to rouse a reader or justify his or her elation over a little “glist’nin’” snow.  In fact, it opens with an absence, “Gone away is the bluebird.” As an established symbol of happiness, the bluebird’s disappearance is conspicuous.  The happiness so tentatively granted in the opening moments immediately disappears as well.  It is gone, and in its place is some unnamed “new bird” a reader is supposed to find so comforting.  An unnamed bird that arrives in winter when all of the others are flying south is worth comment.  Few readers speak bird and thus could say with certainty whether this clearly lost bird is singing a love song or a lament that he is freezing in a climate for which he is clearly unsuited, the average tolerable temperature for a small bird being 45°F  or 7°C, well above freezing.  Does the author even expect a reader to swallow what is now the fifth supposition of the poem.  Is it believable?  It is not and—this is the song’s brilliance of course—it is not meant to be.  This text looks happy, but like the glist’nin’ snow, its shiny surface hides a pretty bad car wreck waiting to happen.

The accumulating fictions continue apace in the third verse.  “In the meadow”—does a reader need to be told it is a meadow; is not a reader just being reminded of what it is not—green, lush, and full of life?  Then “we”—the author is careful to include readers so they begin to chafe against the restrictive hempen restraints with which he binds them so very, very, very tightly—”can build a snowman.”  Yes, a reader could build a snowman, but would he?  And if he did, would said snowman be anything more than an empty white figure who really stands for nothing and no one, a symbol of the companionship so many people so desperately seek and cannot find during the holiday season because no one really understands the workings of another mind, particularly a discerning mind that sees so, so much more in what others simply accept as “happy”?

By the appearance of Parson Brown, the enigmatic center of the song, the fiction has begun to wheel like the falcon in Yeats’ “Second Coming.” “We,” the identity superimposed on the reader, superimposes the name “Parson Brown” on a white no one.  The name is pointedly bland, generic, but the color is interesting.  The juxtaposition of white snow—which at its best might represent new hope—and brown—the color of decay and decline—is pointed.  Similarly the verb “pretend” stands out.  It is out in the open now, the reader is pretending and knows it.  The conversation with this specious parson is not any more comforting.  He says, “Are you married?” which is quite a personal question from a pile of compacted frozen precipitation.  Yet the reader answers, “No, man!  But you can do the job when you’re in town.”  Again the fiction stretches beyond the bounds of credulity.  Even if readers could accept they are out in a frozen meadow having a conversation with what amounts to an icy mannequin, even if they could accept that this frozen figure is endowed with a name and a job, even if they can accept that they are going to marry whoever is the narrator of this song, would any sane reader call a parson “man”?  “Parson Brown” evokes early New England and “man” evokes Jack Kerouac and smoky nightclubs.  The two cannot be in the same sentence. G. Sayer argues that it is the only way the rhyme would work, but a reader might remain unconvinced because the reader could have been convinced that a reader is supposed to be unconvinced by what is patently unconvincing. “You can do the job when you’re in town” obviates the failure of these multiple fictions.  The parson / snowman is in town, and he cannot do the job because, based on thorough research into international statues, snowman weddings are not legally binding in any state or country.

Ultimately the poem leaves readers huddled by the meager consolation of a tepid fire. Readers “conspire” because they know it will take some cabal, some magic obviously absent in the early twenty-first century world, to make our “dreams”—aptly named—happen.  The seemingly optimistic promise that readers will face their plans “unafraid” just illuminates the fear they do feel and can only attempt to face.  Why do readers need to fear their own plans unless they know that these plans, like the parson statue still standing like a post in the empty meadow, are vulnerable fictions, ideas they cannot ever completely convince themselves are real.  The final image of “walkin’ in the winter wonderland” leaves readers thinking of Lear wandering the moors, all anchors lost.  It is indeed a “wonderland,” but readers are left wondering that they did not perceive its emptiness before now.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, High School Teaching, Humanities, Parody, Satire, Teaching, Thoughts, Winter, Work, Writing

Grading December

This time of year, assessment fatigue creeps up on me.  I know the immense responsibility of responding to student work, but I grow tired of judging the merit of what they produce.  Hours of reading essays, tests, and rewrites improves my attention to students’ writing and thinking—what’s missing, confusing, promising, what’s singing and what’s stammering, what’s reaching out to readers and what’s just fulfilling the assignment.  However, the final act—writing A, B, C, (or worse) and deciding what a student’s effort deserves—becomes painful.  I’d rather skip it.

In a creative writing course last year, I experimented with assessing the volume and quality of student effort instead of judging the merit of what they produced.  To pass the course, students had to complete major writing projects conscientiously, through multiple drafts and workshops. But they could raise their grade from there by choosing to write smaller, optional assignments. I reserved the right at the end of the semester to lower or raise their final average by up to five points if they exceeded or disappointed expectations, but few fell short.  For the most part, students worked hard to reach the grade they desired.  And all I had to do was make challenging and inspiring assignments, monitor what students had completed, and assess the quality of their effort.  While I responded to all their work thoughtfully with the same volume of comments I always do, I did not put a letter on any assignment all semester.

As exams approach, I’ve been wondering, would it be possible to devise a “contract exam”?  So, though I should have been writing my real exams, I’ve written a contract exam instead.  I know it’s not realistic—I know it would never work, and I confess to indulging a little wish fulfillment in creating it.  I wrote this exam for fun and think of it as a sort of fantasy of what an exam might be…


Before you begin, please review these general directions:

  • By fulfilling the tasks on this examination, you will gather points towards 100.
  • This exam is unlimited—you may spend as much time on it as you like and respond to as many questions as you like.
  • However, you should spend no more time on it than you like—writing that is perfunctory, desultory, spiritless, disengaged, or generally obligatory is unlikely to receive points.
  • Please choose tasks that inspire you.  Doing everything on this exam—the shotgun approach—is counterproductive and will not yield success.

Section I: Must (75%)—In order to pass this exam, you must complete THREE of the following tasks connected to critical moments in the works you have read.  As always, your writing will be assessed for its focus, organization, and substance.  However, those comments will be for your personal growth as a writer only.  It is up to you to decide what is the proper length, form, and content of your responses.  You will receive full points if you complete what you are being asked to do in a credible fashion.

For THREE different literary works, write about a moment when…

  • a main character recognizes something important about him or herself
  • the author reveals a characteristic approach or technique
  • a secondary element (minor character, setting, motif, etc.) supports a major theme
  • a work establishes a question or issue it means to address but not answer
  • the resolution of tension or contradiction becomes clear

Section II: Might (30%)—All of the six point tasks below are optional. Please proceed only if a task inspires specific thoughts or reactions.  You will receive points if your responses add to a reader’s understanding of the work in question. As in the first section, commentary on your ideas and your expression of them will be a means of developing your writing skills.

  1. Take a moment in a work in from one genre and convert it to another—turn a poem’s line into a scene from a short story, make a scene in a story into a poem, etc.
  2. Speak in the voice of one of the writers we’ve studied and talk about what you are trying to accomplish in one of your works.
  3. Imagine a director has chosen to adapt one of the works we’ve encountered—write a letter advising him or her of the particular challenges the work presents.
  4. Discuss one personal connection you made with one of the works we’ve read—when did you say “I really understand what that’s about”?
  5. Choose the writer we’ve encountered who seems to come closest to your own view of what writing should be and do and discuss why.
  6. Create a conversation between characters in separate works we’ve read.  What might they have to say to one another if they knew each knew both stories?
  7. Recommend one of the works we’ve encountered to a friend—what is it exactly that makes it worth reading… perhaps because it offers something this particular friend?
  8. Describe a main character during a private moment in which he or she says nothing.  Communicate your understanding of this character within this constraint.
  9. Explain how an absence in one of the works we’ve encountered helps establish what the author hoped to communicate.
  10. Use a statement from one of the works we encountered and write a two minute radio piece expressing why that statement has been memorable and meaningful to you.
  11. Address the work that gave you the most difficulty and account for why.
  12. Devise a task along the lines of the ones above—but not covered in any of them—and respond to it.

Section III: Recovery Points—You may receive points to compensate for losses in the first two sections by writing a letter about your experience reading literature in this class. All decisions about the length, form, content, and direction of this letter are your own—please think about what you want to say.

When you have completed your work, please check it over to assure that you have presented yourself in the best possible light.  See you next semester.

Like I said, it would NEVER work.

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Only Disconnect

A teaching colleague once gave me curious advice—don’t assign literature you love.

She said my mountainous expectations would be unscaleable.  She explained how students can find cracks to bring any perfect book, poem, or story down.  “You’re setting yourself up,” she said, “you won’t believe me until you kill your favorites, but I wish I could spare you.”

She was right I wouldn’t believe her.  Teachers learn energy is as important in a classroom as on stage, enthusiasm is contagious, and students smell insincerity a long way off.  How terrible can it be to praise works that moved you?  Don’t we want to share what we cherished?

But any advice is problematic, especially when it sounds wise yet seems counterintuitive. At 23 or 24, when I received this warning, I regarded most advice as invitation instead of prohibition.  Cautions and condemnations landed in an already long list of propositions to test.

I have thoroughly tested her advice, most recently this summer when I assigned one of my favorite books, Howards End, in a summer school class.  Though the class politely humored me through Forster’s novel, I could tell… they hated it.

And I won’t fight anymore.  I’m prepared, at last, to face my former colleague’s advice. I understand why teaching favorites is so troublesome…

  • No book is a universal hit.  If I remembered my own experience accurately, I might have recalled conversations with classmates who struggled with Howards End.  Forster didn’t speak to them, but—because he did to me, I saw their problem as inattention, not as variability. Forster says, “One is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s own emotions.”  Why wouldn’t a reader feel the same?
  • Mistaking affection for admiration is easy, especially with art. Admiration has a subjective component, but affection is invariably subjective.  Admiration is sometimes transferrable.  Affection is not. When I read Howards End the first time, I’d learned to put judgment aside in favor of understanding and congratulated myself for connecting with every character.  Reading the novel this summer, however, my affection seemed to have more to do with me than with Forster.  Students don’t feel ready sympathy.  Sometimes, they like no one.
  • Books are interesting for flaws and triumphs.  My colleague may have been urging me to examine literature’s distinctiveness instead of its value.  We study writing not because it’s good or bad but because it gets us somewhere.  Howards End contains lyrical passages I loved reading aloud and would have loved discussing, but those passages called crickets. The class wanted to examine Forster’s intentions, whether he knew what he was doing at all.  Burying my own defensiveness brought out the best in them.
  • Teachers should want a fight.  When a class believes I’m qualified, they qualify my texts, but they also ask me to substantiate my responses just as I ask them.  Discussions of art often trace individual responses to specific form and content.  Perhaps no universal response is possible, but you won’t discover anything without examining particulars. This time, I left Howards End with a more thorough and accurate sense of what’s in it.

Looking over my book lists for this fall, I see many works I love, an indication I haven’t entirely accepted my colleague’s advice. I want to teach what’s worthy and can’t always convince myself I’m wrong.  My cynicism has limits—hope trips me up every time.

How I teach these books may matter more than what I teach. I won’t wear my affections on my sleeve anymore.  I’ll prepare to see my beloved in an unflattering mirror…  because it’s true the beholder is boss in the end.

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Future School

This summer, I’ve been battling myself—the firebrand in me who sees education as a vital route of innovation and change versus the curmudgeon who, after 25 years in the classroom, thinks we’re well off the path, have got education all wrong, and are going to hell in a hefty.

My dilemma boils down to a pretty fundamental question, “What are schools for?” or, stated more colorfully by my inner curmudgeon, “What the hell are we doing?”  Five weeks remain to declare a winner, and the outcome determines the spirit I’ll carry into the new school year.

I’ve been teaching a summer school class on film adaptations of literature, and, as I was nearing the third week, it occurred to me that, in our post-literate world, I could be teaching a course of the future.  Movies can take the place of books as a way of teaching analysis—students seem more interested in watching than in reading and, after all, analysis is analysis regardless of its object.

My revelation isn’t at all far-fetched. Both books and movies invite a person to venture into the minds of makers, addressing how the form of the object communicates intentions and implications.  Both teach that precise and discerning  observation creates insight.  What a person needs to know to “read” movies is every bit as vast as what students apply to reading.  More importantly, extensive exposure allows students to approach cinema with well developed curiosity and expertise.  Compared to their reading skills, their viewing skills are much further along, and they could, as a result, get further with film studies than with literary criticism, now the fetishistic interest of a few scholars.

And, increasingly, students are less experienced with reading.  Most don’t do much reading outside class, and those who do often read novels specifically marketed to them and written on reading levels at or below their present capacity. Many of my students aren’t equipped—or, more accurately, trained—to absorb the complicated prose I foist on them.  And many haven’t the patience to develop the disciplined habit of reading closely.  They do enjoy movies, though.  They might be more willing to scrutinize them.

I just get rolling with this vision of Future School, however, when the word “surrender” crawls across my cerebral cortex, and my inner crisis rears.  What is the purpose of school, to meet the students where they live—and maybe even anticipate where they are headed—or to preserve what, over time, civilization values as essential?  It’s a quixotic question—do we tilt at windmills or face the reality that only we care about windmills at all?

Neil Postman asked similar questions in two books, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969) and Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979).  In the first, he wanted students who try the relevance of every assignment and ask of every fact, “Whose fact are you?”

In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, however, Postman recanted a little.  Students need to be engaged, yes, because pursuing curiosities determines how much you learn and want to learn.  But can students understand what’s essential for them to know?  Who gets to decide that?

He replaced his school-as-laboratory with a school-as-thermostat.  The society at large is the first curriculum, he said, endowing students with most of what they know and understand.  Schools are the second curriculum.  They provide feedback to the first.  If the first curriculum rises or falls too much, the second curriculum regulates it—like a thermostat—keeping civilization at a safe level.  In other words, when society says “Watch movies and television, listen to iPods, surf the web, Facebook, and text,”  school says, “let’s not forget that reading is a gateway to all that preceded you.”

Writing in 1979, Postman recognizes “A generation being raised in an information environment that, on one hand, stresses visual imagery, discontinuity, immediacy, and alogicality. It is antihistorical, antiscientific, anticonceptual, antirational.”  That bias toward ephemeral and sensory media suggests a need for school that might “help conserve that which is both necessary to human survival and threatened by a furious and exhausting culture.”  School, Postman suggests,

…is one of our few remaining information systems firmly organized around preelectronic patterns of communication. School is old times and old biases. For that reason, it is more valuable to us than most people realize, but, in any case, provides a clear contrast to the newer system of perception and thought.

Postman reminds me of the historical view of middle ages monasteries.  They preserved culture against an onslaught of aliterality and rescued legacies of Greek, Roman, and Arabic civilization.

I get queasy identifying with medieval monks—like every teacher, I want to be relevant and current—and so I’m torn.  I could be retooled to teach film, just as I’ve been retooled to teach with computers, smart boards, websites, and all the proliferating forms of edutainment. I wonder sometimes, however, if I’m ready to give up on methods of study that taught me. My skepticism at seminars entitled “Teaching New Millennium Students” or “Reaching Digital Natives” feels justified. If my students are as good at digital media as everyone says they are—and presenters are always telling me I will never catch up with them—then the first curriculum doesn’t need me at all.

I acknowledge literary analysis may already be irrelevant, may become irrelevant or may be relevant in unexpected ways, but am I ready to say it’s not worth being able to read challenging literature closely and appreciatively?  No.

My father grew more and more conservative in his later years, and I learned to dismiss his views as rationalizing.  From my point of view, he was protecting what he understood and appreciated best.  But now I am my father, and I’m wondering who will win this battle, the hip teacher keen to be where students are or the curmudgeon all too ready to serve up gallons of fortifying elixir just to help them appreciate a spoonful of Shakespeare.

I really don’t know.

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Auteur! Auteur!

Back in the 1950s, the French director Francois Truffaut labeled some directors auteurs and others metteurs-en-scène.  Auteurs create a distinctive vision of the world—their own—and produce films with instantly recognizable and idiosyncratic style.  They return over and over to their peculiar fixations and seem to create connections between films as well as within them.

Metteurs-en-scène—perhaps best translated in this context as “the rest”—might be capable, but they do a job, follow convention, and recycle acceptable, digestible, and familiar cinematic techniques.

And in this distinction lies a larger vision of art that celebrates the artist over the art… a vision that, today, seems increasingly quaint.

Critics applying Truffaut’s thinking today might label Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Kathryn Bigelow auteurs.  Though we might like some specific films from other largely nameless directors, they are the metteurs-en-scène.

As a way of watching movies, Truffaut’s viewpoint is useful.  He urges viewers to look for the strange obsessions directors indulge and the resourceful ways they use cameras to convey their particular takes on a reality we ostensibly share. For Truffaut, membership in one group or the other is fluid—a metteur-en-scène could become an auteur and vice versa.  Ambition is most important.  A successful director needs individual innovation, an overpowering anxiety of influence, and dissatisfaction with ancient and recent history.  He or she has to want to stand out, to make a mark.

Like many theories about art, however, this perspective suggests prickly values—innovation is good, synthesis bad.  Eccentricity is artistic, universal appeal is not. Meanwhile, a few critics decide which few directors are worthwhile.  Others may seem enjoyable but, in the end, are really only serviceable.  We appreciate their efforts but they can’t be deemed artists.

Therein lies the problem.

Pauline Kael and other reviewers objected to the auteur theory in part because film is collaborative—auteurs don’t work alone and owe much to actors, writers, directors of photography, and editors.  Kael’s response, however, implies a more prominent issue—whether viewers appreciate movies or the person (or people) who made them. From a more democratic shuffling iPod perspective—one that celebrates songs over bands or poems over poets, or paintings over oeuvres—auteur theory seems especially elitist.  Declaring auteurs suggests some artists are artists and some are not. It is not okay to simply like something.

The backlash to that sort of elitism seems especially strong now.

The question of who is worthy is complicated.  Most of the directors called auteurs are, to the general public, outsiders.  They may be admired—may be even academy award winning—but their fare isn’t always appealing or bankable.  Cinema is increasingly divided into “entertainments” everyone sees and art films viewed as DVDs or electronic files.  Like the highbrow books on the NYTimes best seller list, they may not be watched all the way through.

And, in the computer age, many have begun to question whether art requires an auteur at all.

Electronic sharing erodes the whole concept of authorship.  Torrenters think less about makers.  They don’t see artists as owning their works or even deserving the economic benefits deriving from them. They regard the stranglehold of access as a sort of extortion and see sources as largely anonymous, a contribution to a pool called “Television,” “Music” or “Cinema” that no one should truly own or control. And their tastes are eclectic—they vote with their terabytes.

While a division has always existed between artist and art—and, by extension, between high brow and low brow art—the distinction seems headed in a new direction.  The ease of accessing art through our computers makes a new aesthetic possible.  What’s seen or heard or visited or clicked on is valuable, the people who made it, less so.  The person who created the work of art is the beneficiary of public attention… which is not quite the same thing as being deserving of adoration.

Which is also why “auteur theory” seems the product of another age.  Reverence for artists hasn’t disappeared—it will never disappear—but viewers and listeners and art appreciators seem to come closer and closer to sports fans. They aren’t the hero worshippers Truffaut anticipated.

Watching from wherever he is watching, he might be surprised where we’ve traveled and wonder where an electronic aesthetic of popularity may take us.

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Accept a Moment

Here is the commencement address I gave at my school this week with a few changes to avoid real names.  If you are a regular reader here, you may notice some familiar themes (and prose):

Standing here, I’m thinking of the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Those of you who have read the book know Billy Pilgrim finds himself transported bodily to his past and future.  He is suddenly serenely drowning in a pool at the Illium, New York YMCA, making love to Montana Wildhack in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore, weeping over an injured horse after the allies’ firebombing of Dresden.

Then he’s back again.

My affliction is more metaphoric.  I can’t help seeing this moment through other moments—my own senior year, graduations of students I’ve taught in the last 27 years, classes you’ve been in.

And, because I’m a parent of a senior, I also see other moments—saying goodbye on the first day of pre-school, listening to hurried explanations of “what I learned today” or watching, as every parent does, even when my child didn’t know I was watching at all… and was probably busy ignoring me.

Vonnegut’s surreal approach, it turns out, is real.  We suddenly find ourselves in memories and can’t recall how we arrived there.

As Billy Pilgrim discovers, many of these moments are absurd. Look at us now—this auspicious occasion is more than a little strange.  Were I Billy Pilgrim arriving here, I might wonder… why am I wearing a mu mu?  What is this limp, multi-colored hula hoop around my neck?  Why are you wearing such silly hats?  Those tails are in the wrong place. How come—as I’m speaking to you—you are staring at the back of my head?

Calling this occasion “commencement” is absurd too.  You might be thinking about endings.  No more dozing on the senior couch or discussing the ridiculous test-slash-quiz-slash-quest-slash-assessment-slash-Challenge Assignment you just endured.  No more leaving mystery objects in classmates’ mailboxes, filming a banner, or wondering when someone will suddenly stand up and say “Now shut the barn door, are you saying…” You won’t be slipping into gathering late anymore—next year, no one will know what a “Gathering” is.  Fishbowl will return to being a noun, and you will never, never, never have to explain the school’s schedule again.

Your future classmates will thank you if you don’t.

You may already have moved on.  We are all so unstuck in time, we are always moving on.

One moment I can’t return to is my own high school graduation.  I didn’t go.  My sister was getting married the same weekend five states away.  I could have made it back for the ceremony, but that part of my life seemed done.  I thought, “I’m way too cool for that falderal” and I told myself, “Isn’t it mostly for parents anyway?”

Well, I’m parent now, and I’ve decided that last part…. is true.  We are immeasurably and irrationally proud of you.  We need this moment… so get over it.

The older we get, the more we want to live in moments like this one.  They’re special even if we manufacture them.

For all this ceremony’s absurdities, it’s not absurd to make you pause, look at one another and be immeasurably and irrationally proud of yourselves, to say goodbye to teachers you’re leaving behind, especially the teachers who are leaving us all behind.

Books and movies linger on these moments—just before the bat hits the ball, or the score ignites the crowd, or the crowd realizes what magic it has just witnessed.

We don’t get to do what books and movies do.  We’d like to, but can’t.

Last fall, I went to Peoria with the Cross Country team for the state finals.  The girls and boys teams had dwindled to ten runners and only eight would stand at the start line of the two races.  Everyone received Coach’s words before the start—and, as usual, they were good, rousing words—but I wanted even more.  We could have had a bigger moment.  We should have eyed each other and said, “Look at us.” We should have remembered all the athletes who weren’t there but who pushed the ones remaining to run better than they ever thought possible.  We should have said, “This moment only arrives once.”

But someone was wondering if the computer chip was secured correctly, and someone was sick of being photographed, and someone was worried whether that visit to the port-o-let was ill-timed and someone else wondered if it was too hot or too early or too scary.

Someone wanted it over.

Because that’s how most of us live—with “what’s next?” on our lips.

So, absurd as it is, we’re holding you hostage.  Those silly hats—they’re for pinning you down.  For once, you have no laptops, blackberries, iPods, or other electronica to divert you.

I hope.

Welcome to monotasking—the sort that means drinking in the present, of being spontaneous, free of self-consciousness, without judgment, open to influence.

Some of you already know that pleasure from reading.  Books offer complete immersion in moments.  The best ones give us precious echoes of our own experience.  They give us more moments that make us feel less alone.  Though the author manufactured them, they tell us what’s true.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau said, “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence.”

Seniors, if I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t waste it on any accio to material success.  I’d give you pleasure in this moment—and every moment.  I’d give you more reasons to come unstuck in time.  I’d focus on every moment as we have this one.

Our era is skilled at judgment.  People read a page and declare a book “crap” or reject a task as dumb even before undertaking it.  We have judgment as a constant companion, evaluating each moment—and each other—until everything fractures into what it is and how we judge its worth.

Instead of enjoying each other—really being with one another—we text, we face…book.  We hurry onto our next notification or message.

But look at us now. Right now.  Your last homework is to think of a moment you’d like to remember forever… something you couldn’t tweet or text.

Because, more than simply filling your head with stuff, your teachers wanted to create moments to return to…

Because soon you’ll move on…

But before you go, I have one last seemingly random, off-the-subject story that turns out to be quite instructive:

I worked for the University Press in college.  My job was pretty uninteresting—I put books in boxes, sent bills, and did some quite crude accounting—but my boss had placed his faith in me, and that meant a lot. I took the job not because I loved bubble wrap, but because of Professor J. I could mention few subjects he hadn’t read something about, but he didn’t show off his knowledge.  He had a wry smile for undergraduate opinions he’d heard a million times and listened attentively as I rattled on about everything and anything.  I loved our messy basement office and every moment I spent there.

But I got behind.  Professor J was hardly a taskmaster.  He trusted me to keep up with orders and I didn’t always fulfill his trust in timely fashion, so I’d go in on a Saturday or Sunday to complete orders.  I didn’t want my boss to know.

One Sunday in the winter of my senior year, I let myself into the office to work.  My attention was elsewhere—I’d had a tough conversation with my dad the night before, and, on the desk in my apartment were the dates for GREs and LSATs, applications to graduate school, and handouts from the placement office about on-campus interviews.

It had dawned on me that the school was going to make me graduate, and I was upset—upset because I loved school, because being a student felt like the only thing I did well.

As I wrapped books and sealed packages, I began to think about how little I knew about what was outside this place I loved, what was next, who I was.  And I became more emotional, and, perhaps because I was sleep deprived or miffed about getting behind, or maybe because I was visited by the murky spirit of that senior winter, I began to cry.

Not sobbing or weeping or throwing-myself-to-the-floor-and-gnashing-my-teeth crying, but water, a lot of water was leaking from my eyes —we’re 60 % water, after all.  And I was in this state, crying and packing books, mailing my tears to various libraries and bookstores all over the country—and internationally—when I heard the lock of the door turn.

And there was Professor J, arriving to pick something up, clearly not expecting a momentarily leaky undergraduate flinging books. I wiped my eyes quickly, but he saw me, and he stopped.  He looked at me—the most complete eye contact you can imagine—soul to soul—and then came the moment I want to share with you.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked.

I actually don’t like tea much, but I understood, at that instant, that the answer was “yes.”

Seniors, maybe you want to know what we discussed—about the future, about how you know who you are, about how to find the sort of life where it feels okay to leak unexpectedly.  We did talk about those things… but the truth is, I don’t remember any of it.

I remember how sweet the honey in the tea was, how the cup was so warm I dared not keep it in my hands or do more than sip it.  I remember the scent of bergamot and how the chair creaked when I shifted.

Most of all I remember how kind he was, how he let silences lie, how he told me, without telling me, that he’d been where I was and knew how much that odd moment mattered.

Over the last few years, you might have a moment like that to recall, a moment when you realized that, sometimes, we need to stop our restless movement and show gratitude for every moment… including this artificial, manufactured, but very real expression of our love for you.

I hope so. Your parents, your teachers, your friends might be hoping the same—we don’t want time to sweep you away.  It will, but while you are here and we are here, let’s stop and love this pomp and circumstance… before you leave us to find more moments to love.

Thank you for sharing so many nice seconds, minutes, and hours with us, thank you for giving us this event to celebrate, for giving us this NOW, a good reason to come unstuck in time… Godspeed class of 20-10.


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