Tag Archives: Education

A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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School, The Place

Amanda-Fire-Alarms-768x1024As I’m on sabbatical this year, I’ll be missing the opening day of school for the first time since 1962 when I was three and not yet old enough.

Because I’ve been through 32 school starts as a teacher, I know what will happen. Students will lope down auditorium steps, dressed in new clothes to fit their continually new bodies. They will talk excitedly without being obvious… or at least only to the point of being properly obvious. Some will look left and right for the safety of faces that will beam back recognition, then wave.

Teachers, they’ll largely ignore. Teachers will line up somewhere seen, maybe along the sides, or will shepherd students as they’ve been instructed and pretend to be unbothered by another year of conspicuous invisibility.

The hubbub will resist a few attempts at quiet, but the initial syllable of the initial solitary voice will assert that all these minds and hearts and hands and bodies are actually one school. Every opening day is a new start and reunion. At some point, the gears will catch and the machine will seem to have been in constant operation, but, for a few minutes, possibility reigns.

School is a strange place, a part of the world and also apart from it. Even the most unconventional school follows basic conventions. There are teachers—however overtly or covertly they’re involved in educating students—and classrooms—whether they take recognizable form or not. There are some students who want each teacher’s knowledge and can’t contain or hide the pleasure of learning, and some students who, though at the center of it all, watch the clock, and the whole process, with impotence, confusion, and fear.

Though school starts and ends and is only in session so long, the regular schoolhouse rhythm of hour, day, term, season, and year—no matter how it’s divided—takes over as if it were reality itself.

Doing any job for a long time defines you, but a school’s structure can become a second skeleton. When each year superimposes over the last, you see ghosts as well as human beings in your classroom. Those who once occupied this space are gone—you hear news they’ve grown up to study and work in faraway places—but they’re in the building too, in the hopes and horrors of the ones arriving… who are never so different. It’s easy for a teacher to begin believing school is the world or, at least, a concentrated version of it.

Of course it isn’t. School is also a rare enclave where people still trust unlikely outcomes and bet on personal and intellectual progress. That’s the excitement—a new year and a new day and a new class can really be new. Each year begins with hope. Though sometimes the wider world undermines and discourages teachers—telling them they’re lazy part-timers or cast-offs stupider than those they’re hired to teach or misguided dinosaurs hiding from real life behind yellowed notecards—no teacher without faith lasts long. I still have faith.

My experience tells me the first day will be exhausting. My colleagues will go home feeling as if they’ve survived a prizefight, but they’ll be restless as well, already attending to the next day. I won’t miss the relentless pace of my school, the snow of papers falling from September to December, January to June, or the constant news from outside that teachers aren’t good enough.

Clearly, I need a rest, but I’ll miss the aspirational DNA of school, the ambition that is mortar to the bricks. My uncrowded life will certainly be quieter and less frantic, which is quite okay, but maybe lonely too. I’m over the idea I’m affecting eternity, but I’ll miss students who, amid the hubbub, hope their teachers will have something important to say.

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The Receiver, the Message, and the Messenger (In That Order)

0The technical meaning of the word “feedback” doesn’t exactly the match its colloquial meaning. In acoustics, feedback is sound doubling back, fuzz reverberating in dammed sound waves. Whereas, when teachers or other evaluators use “feedback,” they mean to say something new, something missed or unnoticed. In sound, feedback is a sort of echo. Teaching feedback says, “Here’s what you’re haven’t done… and should.”

Not everyone is good at receiving feedback. A teacher points out a glaring error, and suddenly the student’s competence is being questioned. The student’s face clouds. Maybe tears start. The tone of critique can make a big difference, and many teachers rely on “This work” over “You” because they want to emphasize the process over its author. They wish to make feedback an intellectual process, and, as long as any issue is repairable, it’s no reflection on the person who made the mistake. A student who can always improve his or her work—these teachers believe—receives even brutal critique as a ratification of their ability and capacity for improvement.

Yet how students respond to feedback often rests more with their personalities than how they’re criticized. Someone burned before may not want to go near any stove, and someone with an insecure sense of self might be hypersensitive to even the mildest threat. Teachers often have to guess which category this individual is in and how he or she might respond. In other words, they need to know students. Sometimes that’s impossible, and yet, paradoxically, teaching means focusing not exclusively on work  but on the workers’ feelings and investment.

And as the consequence of the work increases, the gravity of criticism grows. Discuss “the essay” with a student five days before the due date, and he or she might respond positively and hopefully. The day before the due date, some measure of reassurance may be necessary, not just “These repairs are doable” but “YOU can do these repairs.”

Perhaps all work is personal work, inseparable from the person who does it.

Bosses frequently neglect “You can do it” because, after all, employees are compensated for good work. It’s required. What’s more, a boss may think only producing matters. Though studies confirm over and over that output rises when a manager takes interest in developing skills and a worker feels valued and important, concern for employees as people seems too messy, time consuming, and expensive. It’s easier to bypass the worker and stress the work. Many businesses use feedback exclusively to cull people they deem ineffective. In that case, “evaluation” or “adjudication” might be more honest. In a time of labor surplus, employers are much more interested in finding the right person for a job than helping someone learn how to do the job right.

To a lesser extent, the same issue arises in schools when those giving feedback have more concern for assessment than education. From that perspective, feedback justifies a grade instead of improving either the academic work or the capacities of the student. As in many workplaces, some teachers hope to keep the process of “managing” students clean by stressing the product. They wish to avoid entangling themselves in the idiosyncratic.

When the academic work is central, teaching is supposed to result in the best work possible, and any “feedback” that accomplishes that end, including threats, sarcasm, and personal insults, becomes permissible.

The dilemma is that, here too, personality matters in ways challenging to acknowledge. Teachers (and bosses) aren’t immune to insecurity either and, whether consciously or unconsciously, may express those insecurities in petty authority. An impersonal process has the advantage of protecting them from examining their own motives, even if giving particularly cold or harsh feedback fulfills only a need to believe in their own competence and significance.

As a term and a concept and a practice, feedback is challenging. In the end, however, its acoustic meaning may reflect most on the way people use the word. If feedback labels the need for evaluators to double back and evaluate themselves and their motives, perhaps it’s the right word.

But if the ultimate purpose is progress, growing productivity and confidence, then maybe the word is wrong. Proper feedback doesn’t feed back at all but reaches receivers through careful sensitivity to who’s listening and what they can hear well. It speaks without echo or distortion.

 

 

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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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Doing and Being

office-art-mindset1Today I travel to a Literary Hybrid workshop at Kenyon College that combines writing and visual art. The program promises to “Blend techniques of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual arts to generate creative writing through the art of the book.” It appeals to, “A writer curious to write in more genres, or an artist wishing to deepen engagement with text.”

So I’m in those descriptions somewhere, and what I want is to put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. Whatever else comes out of the experience will be a bonus, but I’d like to see my work a little differently, whether this label “literary hybrid” fits.

I generally don’t call myself a visual artist. It’s presumptuous to do so because I stand in awe of people who hold and deserve the title. If they are citizens of that country, then I’m standing at its border staring in. Oh I know there’s no fence, no river, no guard keeping me out. People tell me part of belonging is striding over the line with a smile on your face.

I’m just hesitant to transgress. I do art, but does doing make being? Unsure.

As part of my sabbatical project, I’ve been reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and it has me thinking about the difference between activity and identity. Dweck argues that humans fall into two broad categories, those with an open mindset and those whose mindsets are closed. You don’t want to be on the closed side. Those people take everything they do as contributing to their identity, some measure of who they are and what they’re worth. They are “A Students” because they make A’s. They are athletes because they once excelled at athletics. They make nouns of life’s verbs.

The price is high. Closed mindset people may become inflexible and timid, afraid to risk how they see themselves. They may choose not to run a race they can’t win, and they’re far more sensitive to setbacks. Trouble compromises self-images they’ve cultivated. In fact, they’re prone to call setbacks “failure” and mistakes “failure” and shortcomings “failure.”

On the other side are the open mindsets who see half-full glasses everywhere. A low score on an essay—even if it’s unexpected—is an opportunity to learn and grow. A flat tire on the way to a job interview is an unfortunate episode and not a judgment from the gods. People with open mindsets enjoy struggling because they see themselves growing. They don’t care about what they’re growing toward as long as they’re creeping upward.

Sounds great—let me be an open mindset person too!—but something in the idea (and the hype-y, self-help-y voice Dweck deploys in her book) rankles me. I’ll pass by the contradiction of a label-based division that makes being one identity good and another bad. Dweck wants to create a clear division, and that’s fine. And she’s right we ought not to think so much about ends. But my question is more fundamental: Is it so terrible to wish for achievement, mastery, and an assurance you’ve reached an accepted level of competence?

If all it takes to be an artist is doing art, for instance, how meaningful is the distinction? If labels weren’t so desirable, we all could just have fun, but humans generally seek affirmation. I know I do.

My motivation to attend the workshop at Kenyon comes mostly from an open mindset. My clumsy art won’t bother me as much because I don’t consider myself an visual artist, and perhaps my struggles as a writer will bother me more for the opposite reason. I’ll deal with that. Ultimately, however, I want both to do and to be and also to understand where I am. I don’t need a grade—I’m against those—but I need honest appraisal beyond “Thanks for trying!”

I want to know: was I selected from applicants of more than the 15 participants or was I one of the first 15 to apply? Dweck may call that a bad question, but respect motivates. The possibility of being makes me want to do.

A good time will be had by all—I certainly intend to have a good time— and we’ll all get trophies, I’m sure. Yet I also hope someone will let me know where I am. I don’t mind waiting at the border of Artistia—I’m comfortable there—but I’d love to be invited over, and, if I’m not, well, I need to deal with that.

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No True Past

reality%20show-thumbThis spring, when my history students asked how I felt about the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I stretched to reach my earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, however, the past is there, but it’s never where you look. Who can answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is revision of what you might have felt?

Scientists say we remember the last time we remembered something and, after the first retrieval, never return to the true moment. You can only recall reading the previous sentence once. Then you are simply recalling remembering it. Each moment, like the one arriving and departing right now, is absolutely elusive.

I read an article by George Musser in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American complicating this dilemma. It suggests we construct time instead of perceiving it. We live 80 milliseconds behind so that each piece of sensory data has already passed. 80 milliseconds doesn’t seem much to me, but delay allows the brain time to work. According to physics, someone 30 meters away can clap hands and the sound will be late. Yet, at that distance, though two hands meeting and their sound shouldn’t be simultaneous, we sense they are. Take one step out of that zone and we exceed the brain’s capacity to mend discontinuity. Motion and sound no longer coincide.

A better example, perhaps: you may have watched something where a speaker’s lips don’t quite match the words. Experiments indicate that, as long as the delay is under 80 milliseconds, we won’t notice. After that, we do.

The article describes other clever experiments exposing narratives our brains create. When you touch your nose and your toe at the same time, the sensory data arrives at the same time though the route from nose to brain is appreciably shorter. David Eagleman, a neurologist studying time, rigged up a light that, when you press a button, blinks after a slight delay. After 10 or so tries, the subjects’ brains align the button and the light—they appear consonant. Then when the lag decreases, subjects think the light blinks before they press.

This microcosmic failing is relevant to my macrocosmic memory of 1968. We’re hard-wired to construct reality from signs, to fix memory with prejudice. Another of Eagleman’s flashing light experiments asks observers to assess the duration a light stays on. The first occurrence or one that broke a pattern seems to last longer. Our narratives are sensitive to novelty, they gather impressions with significant bias, and we gain confidence when we’re sure we’ve experienced something distinctive.

It’s easy to remember Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10 and lived in coastal Texas. It was early in my summer vacation. When I got up, the television was on, and my mother told me RFK had been shot and would likely die. The heat had already come, and, when I went outside, I felt—for maybe the first time—frightened by the world I occupied. Only part of it was the day’s news or Martin Luther King’s assassination two months before. Sitting on the curb, I thought about why Texas had to be so hot and whether the earth could ever be too hot to leave my house.

I may be inventing this scene. Neurologists say thoughts of past and future illuminate the same parts of our brains. Looking forward requires fabrication and so does looking back.

Malcolm MacIver, another scientist mentioned in the article, speculates evolution favors animals whose sensory volume (how far they can see, hear, smell, etc.) exceeds their motor volume (how well they move in the space they occupy). Consciousness itself, he argues, springs from knowing where we are according to where we’ve been and a plan to take advantage of what’s ahead. It’s all one big survival game relying on surmise.

My sensory volume is huge, doubled by my creative volume. Those most desperate for narratives are most susceptible to delusion. I seek comfort, and, if circumstances are uncomfortable, I at least think I know the trouble. I can’t answer my students’ questions about the ugly history I experienced, but I like thinking I can. Picture a 10 year-old sitting on the curb, sun baking him before noon, and perhaps that feels true to you.

He may not be me.

Memory is complicated to the point of deception. I see the world as through a telescope or periscope or microscope. My brain—our brains—make sense of observations we sometimes call “history.” We try to straighten out the past before we write it into books but never revisit the thing itself. We can’t.

We are time travelers only in our imaginations.

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Another Tempest 8-15

prospero-and-arielThe second part of a long lyric essay on Prospero of The Tempest. The first part appeared last Tuesday.

8.

The epilogue to The Tempest shifts strangely from triumph to resignation, even to self-abnegation. In possession of his dukedom again and pardoning everyone, Prospero asks for mercy from the audience. “Release me from my bands,” he begs, “With the help of your good hands.” The footnote tells readers “hands” means applause, but it doesn’t have to—Prospero could as easily be seeking succor, intimacy someone of his power and intimidation may be denied.

In the epilogue he says his mission has been “to please,” which is not revenge, not justice, and not his new-old job in Milan. Having given up everything to stand where he does, he says his end will be “Despair, / Unless I be relieved by prayer.” Early on, Prospero aimed for vindication but finishes with a petition for mercy that “frees all faults.” Rather than crowing over his successful tricks and traps, he asks, “As you from your crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free.”

His supplication sounds nothing like victory.

9.

Who sets us free from our own feelings? Who convinces us that we’re in the right spot now, that this new balance of gains and losses is better and that we’re ourselves at last?

 10.

Writers like Jean Anouilh link tragedy and discovery, suggesting tragic figures reach self-knowledge only the hopeless can. When escape and delusion become meaningless, when alternatives whittle to one, tragic figures see themselves more honestly than other mortals might. There’s no squirming, no final evasions, subterfuge, or denial.

But Prospero is no tragic hero—he achieves his desires and undergoes no downfall. Does he share a tragic hero’s awareness?

Attaining his previous position shatters his understanding of himself and his place. His return to Duke of Milan may be the proper resolution of events, but he lost the job originally because it bored him. And his successful retribution, instead of filling him with confidence and power, illuminates his misunderstanding of himself, a new desperation, and an awareness—albeit a dim one—of his own crimes and need for mercy. He sees his own flaws in trying to make others pay for wronging him.

But he isn’t dead yet, and, I wonder—as his every third thought of death arrives—if he still has a tragic hero’s desire for relief.

11.

It’s cliché to say Shakespeare changes as you age, but I identified with Caliban the first time I read The Tempest. Caliban is acted upon, unappreciated, and distressed. As Prospero’s plaything, he relies on the fuel of resentment. He is in every way compelled, denied choices and given no proper spot on the island or anywhere else. He isn’t pretty or nice, but he burns in ways Prospero doesn’t. In comparison, Prospero’s battles seem willful, fitful, and arbitrary.

Prospero is the master and what right does he have to be unhappy?

12.

Some readers may say the epilogue of The Tempest completes Propero’s arc from anger to humility. He hasn’t enjoyed winning as much as he thought and seeks universal amnesty and calm instead.

If that’s so, he will make a lousy duke to Milan. His brother the usurper has greater initiative and confidence. His brother wants the job and looks to no one for relief.

 13.

You can grow tired of wanting, particularly when you’re unsure why you want, whether an ambition you distrust can be real, which uncertain alternative can bring joy.

14.

If, as many believe, Prospero is a surrogate for the retiring Shakespeare, the play’s grace note feels like an exhausted surrender. Prospero appears to want nothing more than to drop his instrument and walk from the orchestra unnoticed.

He is not the same person we met. The vehicle of his transformation is not killing others or harming others as a tragic hero’s might be, but he does kill—willingly—a part of himself. Maybe, in casting off his slaves, his magic, his daughter, his autonomy, and his desire for revenge, he hopes to see his raw self, the self he will be when he slips into that last powerless sleep.

I wonder if he does.

15.

Compared to Prospero, many more thoughts intervene between my thoughts of death. But I understand more now. When ambition achieved, unachieved, formed, or abandoned fails to satisfy, when ambition seems itself positively punishing, it’s natural to desire rest.

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