Fly the W!

cv1nmnbwgaigtqsJust down the street from Truman, Cubs fans speckled Uptown with blue, and W’s flew from car windows.  We sat inside room 2929 for the last time, in the quiet sanctuary of a classroom amidst a bustling sports climate. One of our readings, an excerpt from a book entitled No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom, touted the interwoven policy checks and balances of school governance as a metaphorical three legged stool.  The readings cultivated a rosy, almost Edenesque vision of academia where concerned and valued teachers, and administrators motivated by individualized student needs came together to form an educational Utopia, that when seen from above shared much in common with an aerial perspective of a grandiose garden, blooming Greek Philosophers amongst the azaleas.

Yet, the more closely I get to know my colleagues, the more I find myself gawking at gaping holes in the armature, and cobwebs glinting in the afternoon light.  Modernity, society, even democracy, are just masks we wear.  We’re all always hanging from a cliff, about to plummet, one finger slipping after another, worrying whether we have food in our teeth.  Such is the life of a teacher.  So we wear pant suits and sweep up our hair.  We post our syllabi on Blackboard, and every morning, as we float through traffic on 290, following the glowing red lights like a blind, baby turtle chasing the moonlight towards the high tide, we are filled with fresh hope.  Another day, another classroom.  Another Smart Board waiting to be illuminated.

But the more I speak to my colleagues, the more I am wracked with doubt.  I’ll maintain anonymity here, but some of the greatest and most thoughtful and passionate teachers I know are so fraught with frustration, so pushed to the limits of their limits, that they are apathetic about all things shared governance.  Yet, I notice, and feel it worth repeating, that for all their angst, they still try.  At Faculty Development week last month, one tenured professor was so distraught by the revised mission statement workshop that he started breathing heavily, and at one point, I wondered whether he was sleeping. Another tenured faculty member showed me his notes during an assessment meeting.  He told me that in order to cope, he places the word “zombie” or “mutant” in front of everything he writes.  He had a whole page of notes on “Zombie assessment,” and “mutant SLO’s.”  Another esteemed tenured faculty member has taken to writing poetry about her frustration with Faculty Development Week:  “What is a Faculty Developed?” she queries, in a similar vein to Wordsworth wandering amongst the wayward daffodils.

During an impromptu teacher karaoke night, one of the most respected faculty members at the school admitted to me that she so badly wants to win Faculty of the Month, “Just so I can decline the parking spot and the award money.”  She explained that it was her greatest dream to stick it to the president.  Then there’s a dear friend of mine who seems like the most put together, calm, organized and confident person I’ve ever come across, who confided in me when I had a rough week in semester 1, that when she was going for tenure, she was so anxious she broke out in hives.  “Is it better now?” I asked her, meaning, is it better on the other side of the tenure mountain? But she adamantly claimed that it was all the same.  She didn’t feel any different or any more powerful.  She was overwhelmed and busy, but maybe that anxiety came from caring about her students, her courses, and the ins and outs of every detail of her work life.  It didn’t get any easier with time.  And maybe that comes from being a committed teacher who reinvents oneself each and every semester.  But I think it’s very dangerous to rest my faith in any hope that it will all get easier.  And I worry that this concept of community checks and balances and shared governance is just a first glance of land in a wild and swirling sea.   And I hope that this blog is only my first chapter, that I’ll have much much more to say in the long run.

But I can’t help but think that the Tenure Assistance Process (TAP) process, which was designed by teachers for teachers, aims to cultivate optimism, and to generate a new influx of tenured professors who are ambitious and hopeful about shared governance.  I think it is possible that in encouraging us to be active participants, with the best of intentions, TAP is trying not to mention the frustration, politics, and angst, which seem for some reason inextricably linked to educational institutions.   Instead, TAP wants us to hold a candle, a stake in an academic future.  They want to fill us with hope.  The same way all those aforementioned distressed tenured faculty still show up to work, and try each and every day.  But I can’t shake a sinking feeling.  I’ve been reading Frankenstein for the first time.  And I’m vacillating between thinking there’s a monster murdering everyone we love, leaving bruises like purple azaleas on mangled necks, and thinking it’s all in my head— it’s just my own madness.

And I just can’t shake a mangling fear that the Cubs will lose the Series.  I want to believe in them so badly.  I stepped outside of Truman and was immediately confronted by blue W’s and high-fives.  The whole city is wrapped up in it.  If they win, Chicago will be elevated by it.  But 108 years, and the curse of a goat– that’s a lot to stomach.  It’s a potent self-doubt that hangs in the air.  It’s the very same doubt that I have to swallow each and every time I walk into my classroom and greet my students, faces locked on their Twitter feeds, eyes red from working the night shift.  They’re here for me, and I’m here for them.  We’re all tired.  We’re all hanging off the cliff.  The Cubs are the under-dog we all root for every time the good guy gets the girl.  And shared governance and Utopian academic politics are worth fighting for.  Somewhere, azaleas are in bloom.  If the Cubs sweep the Indians, if I confront my Frankenstein, somewhere far away, on the other side of the tenure mountain.


How many roads must a song walk down before we call it a poem?


“How many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?” At 7:45 on a cold October morning, my car radio announced that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize for literature.  I rapped my steering wheel with excitement.  “Unprecedented,” said the reporter.  “Musician,” “folk songs,” “body of work,” etc. etc. they clamored…”but is it poetry?”  I was thrilled.  I had grown up on Dylan’s lyrics.  I had never been someone who related well to songs.  I had found my way into music through his writing.  And Dylan was the first one who taught me that songs could hold the whole world.  I realize my loosey goosey genre bending interest in art isn’t for everyone.  When I went to graduate school, I very intentionally selected SAIC, a place where one could enter as a screen writer and leave as a sound artist, as long as that was what your art was telling you.  I couldn’t stomach the idea of a program like the one at Cal Arts where if you wanted to write poetry instead of fiction, you had to go to a different building.  To me, art had always been building a bigger story—it was not just the medium of words or paint, but the life of the characters; it was a sort of world building.  I followed that story loyally, and whatever materials happened across my path rolled up into the form, like a snowball, gathering size and speed.  So, maybe that explains why Bob Dylan represented something essential in my dedication to the arts.  His lyrics taught me much about the love of language and language of love, and simultaneously, his lyrics beckoned me to take a listen to the other media involved in song, which I struggled to understand.

So when there was an outpouring of frustration with Dylan winning the Nobel, I was needless to say, disappointed.  I read the articles and tried to give them a chance.  One argument seemed to be that genre matters too much for us to let it go—that we can’t abandon it fully.   Because then art would be difficult to identify, and consequently, understand.  But, I thumped back in angry heartbeats, art that creates confusion is the essence of challenging our perception and understanding of the world!  Others argued along the vein of, ‘if him, why not Kanye West?’  I see that as a flawed and forced hypothesis—as in, why not anybody else?  I think this lashing out of the literary community against an artist is not only disgraceful, and most likely bred of insecurity, but actually much worse.  I think it has to do with identity and difference.  If I identify as a poet, and someone writes fiction and calls it poetry, I no longer know where I stand.  If I identify as man, and someone who is a man identifies as a woman, I no longer know who I am.  I think a lot of prejudice and fear is bred out of the threat to our own identities.  It’s about needing to know who we are through comparison.  I am a woman because I am not a man.  If we take away our concept of opposites, the world begins to crumble.  For those who don’t know who they are without a title, a form, and a clear road map, attributing the word “literature” to Dylan’s work is blasphemous.  But when I showed his lyrics to my classes, they were extremely accepting.  Most of them had never heard of Bob Dylan.  One even asked me whether “it was a California thing”.  So they definitely weren’t impressed by his star status.  They were listening to his words.  And I worry that this literary community reaction has forgotten in all their squabbling and concern over music versus art, versus rock star, to read the words.

I experienced an interesting teaching moment when my embedded tutor asked me in front of my students who already knew I approved, whether I was REALLY okay with it.  I could feel the student’s eyes peeking at me over their computers in the lab.  I told him honestly, “I think it’s great.”

“Really?” responded my tutor, clearly distressed.  Then he tried to change the subject: “Then, never-mind. Never-mind.”

“No, it’s okay.  We should get a drink and talk about it.” I offered.  “I think it opens up the door for art that doesn’t have to look like art.” I continued.  We never got that drink, but I kept stumbling across dissenters: poets, teachers, and dear friends, who I absolutely admired and respected.  I started wondering whether I was wrong.  How could so many people turn against someone whose only crime was using beautiful words to communicate with a whole generation searching for an identity?  I was thankful that my students remained so open-minded about art and identity, and I began to wonder whether pigeonholing our crafts was related to pigeonholing people.

I kept remembering Allen Ginsberg and the reaction of the literary community.  “Howl,” was treated like a disease, a curse, a degradation against literature.  One after another the phD’s and literary icons of the time lined up to denounce the poem, to claim that it wasn’t a poem, that because of its illicit drug-use and sexuality, such content could NEVER be literature.  And I remembered Ginsberg’s own retort:  “A word on the Academies:
poetry has been attacked by an ignorant and frightened bunch of bores
who don’t understand how it’s made, and the trouble with these creeps
is that they wouldn’t know poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight”
(Allen Ginsberg, Notes).

And here we are in 2016, and through the calming effects of time, the formless rant that was “Howl,” comfortably resides in the canon of literary history.  So why do we become our own worst enemies to progress?  Why are we so uncomfortable when a poem, or a person, shifts shapes before our very eyes?  Why do we insist on categorizing the birds in cities as pigeons, and the ones on our greeting cards as doves?

When I don’t know which way is up anymore, sometimes I find myself so thankful for my students.  This week I needed them to help me find my bearings.  They connected the dots between fear of change and xenophobia.  They helped me understand that my own literary community that I hold in such high esteem, is just another group of people, mobilized by a need for belonging in a society.  If literature is degraded to the level of rock and roll, writers lose their altitude as someone who matters.

Often, at the beginning of the semester, students tell me they don’t like art, or would never venture into a gallery because it is elite.  After a semester of conceptual work, graffiti, art made from trash and recycled materials, I am usually able to morph such attitudes into an appreciation that art is all around us.

I suspect this is all related.  Maybe where we error is teaching essay, rhetoric, fallacies, and grammar as though it is lofty, rather than as a part of the student’s own lives.  We need to see ourselves reflected in language, whether we look at re-evaluating singular and plural pronouns as part of gender and identity progress, to the impulse to graffiti one’s name on the wall (an urge as old as cave painting).  If we insist that literature is a high art form, how can we continue to reflect ourselves in it?

And then I started thinking about the election.  I watched the debate at a democratic watch party at O’Shaughnessy’s Public House.  It was a strange and comforting feeling to partake in a community and collaboratively heckle the bad guy.  Although I found myself feeling wary about the false sense of comfort that temporary abode provided me.  I was stirred by a deep concern for the very notion of good and bad guys as relics of a literary tradition designed to build drama and suspense.  And then I started wondering at the connections between it all, the rejection of Dylan, the election polarization, the impetus that the teacher is essentially right and knowledgable.  Perhaps, the rejection of election rhetoric and the rise of Trump’s off-the cuff speech patterns has everything to do with the elitism of our language.  Maybe the celebration of Trump’s mono-syllabic words is a direct reaction to elite communities who insist they are the higher, more educated art form.

If so, this is a dangerous game.  As we sat in seminar yesterday discussing political correctness and connotations of words like “queer” and “gay,” I couldn’t help but recall the Trump supporters who took to Twitter to call Anderson Cooper a “fag” after he defended women in the debate.  Naturally, I shared that with my classes.  Because there were words being slung that could hurt.  Because literature is no longer literature if it ceases to communicate.  And when we suction off music and art and poetry and fiction, we limit their potential to shape shift.  A song can become a poem, and a man can become a woman in this day and age.  A pigeon is just a label.   And there are doves everywhere, but we’ll never see them if we refuse to look.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Assessment

Yesterday, I asked students to read Raymond Carver’s original draft of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which he had tentatively titled, “Beginners.”  I asked them to look closely and carefully at the elements Gordon Lish erased from the story, from the homelessness and anorexia in the opening paragraphs, to an abortion and the link between suicidal thoughts and alcoholism in the dark conclusion.  Whenever I ask students to read Lish’s edits, I am usually rewarded with a unanimous response:  Lish’s version is better.  The writing is tighter.  The minimalist voice adds to the dramatic action.  Mel is a better name than Herb.  I ask them why.  We discuss that ‘Mel’ feels tougher, more independent.  Herb is softer, more insecure.  I ask them why.  Maybe it’s as simple as consonant and vowel sounds.  We talk about mono-syllabic words and impressions of strength.  But one thing never fails.  There are always at least a few students who prefer Carver’s multi-dimensional characters.  To those few, I ask them why.

Sometimes, they struggle to answer.  But that’s okay.  I want that.  I ask them whether Lish should have omitted his revisions when Carver wrote him begging for his stories back in order to save his life.  “Now much of this has to do with my sobriety and with my new-found (and fragile, I see) mental health and well-being” Carver wrote in 1980.  “I strongly feel I stand every chance of losing my soul and mental health over it…I’m still in the process of recovery and trying to get well from alcoholism, and I just can’t take any chances…” he continued.  But Lish published them anyway.  I ask students whether it would be better to remove this famous story from the history of literature to protect the life behind the story.  Then I ask them what right I have to edit their essays.  Again, I want them to struggle.  I want them to understand how complicated a story can be.  It can implicate lives, desperation, and it can have its own elaborate history buried in its revisions.

When we talk about assessment amongst teachers, often it gets lumped into looking like a test.  Through my own instructional inquiry, I’m slowly starting to unpack the power of the Socratic method in the classroom.  I can guide student discoveries by asking questions, allowing them to laugh when they are uncomfortable, then asking them to reflect on the laughter.  It may sound funny to think of asking rhetorical questions as a sort of assessment.  It may sound even funnier to think that watching them struggle to answer is the equivalent of passing a multiple choice exam.  But if they’re not struggling to answer, then they’re not yet falling down the rabbit hole.

After teaching the class on Carver, I had a vivid dream that I traveled back in time and met Raymond Carver himself, ironically in a bar.  The year was 1981, and he was dashing.  I realized upon waking that my dream Carver was much more akin to a romantic Hollywood lead than the true Carver’s physique.  He was very tall, and he wore a pin-stripe suit.  I told dream Carver that my students had preferred his version, that “Beginners” had meant something to them.  I could tell it meant something to him, hearing me say that.  He scrawled his name, Ray, and his number on a bar napkin in beautiful, flowing cursive.  I could feel my heart still beating as my alarm went off.

As I sat in seminar today, I couldn’t quite blink Carver away.  He was like a heavy ghost pacing back and forth across the classroom.  As we discussed backwards design, and the numerous approaches to assessment, I couldn’t help but marvel at my dream.  Teaching had brought me so close to a man who meant so much to me, but whom I would never meet.  I have admitted in this blog before that sometimes,  for me, reading feels a lot like dreaming.  Sometimes, I get all confused. In this instance, reading Carver’s story had allowed me to meet the sad, sweet man, who spent so much time thinking about love.

Anyhow, I kept thinking about Carver, and I found myself traveling back more and more to times I had struggled through my own education.  I recalled my preschool teacher who had called my mother in for conferences out of concern because I wasn’t learning the alphabet.  “You need to have her tested for a learning disorder,” said the forceful kindergarten teacher, Mrs. May, a tenured teacher at Santa Rita Elementary.  My mother was (and still is) a child psychologist.  She confidently said her part.  She was adamant that I was capable of learning the alphabet; I just refused to memorize abstract letters that held no connection to the real world.  I just didn’t see the point.  I have always been a stubborn learner.  I have to be motivated or else everything just bounces off me.  My mom connected letters to animals, and then asked me to recite the alphabet.

“Do I have to?” I whined.

“Just do it once,” my mom reasoned.  “If you do, I won’t make you do it again.”  And I did it perfectly, all 26 letters.

Then there was the map test in 4th grade.  We had to write in all 50 states and all 50 capitals.  We had to keep taking the test until we passed it.  I simply couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t memorize all those abstract names.  They didn’t represent real places to me.  I got so anxious about the test itself, that even the sight of my father’s map placemats at the breakfast table sent me into a cold sweat.  I failed that test miserably.  The first time I got about 12%.  I did make my way up steadily, but each time I took the assessment, I was losing a little bit of my confidence.  I made it up to 36%.  Then 55%.  Finally, in the end of the school year, with the box air conditioner kicking on and off and class gerbil eyeing me between dioramas, I did it.  I passed at 73%.  But rather than a wave of relief, I felt crumpled.  I refused to look at a map for a long, long time.  I never really learned directions or geography.  That part of my brain shut down because I was unbearably anxious.  Now, as an adult, I rely on my iphone to navigate the city of Chicago.  I still don’t fully think I can do it.  So, in a very real way, that childhood assessment determined a large part of my adult life.

We have spent a lot of time in the tenure process reflecting on our best teachers, and our most memorable learning moments.  But it is important to look back at the painful ones too, as I wonder whether there are times when assessment misses the mark.  I wonder if I create this kind of fear in my own students.  I would hate to think that I might have that kind of power.  I look back to Raymond Carver, avoiding eye contact with me in his pin-stripe suit across the bar, and I wonder if he too, felt the burn of an assessment that didn’t do him justice.  Lish may have been a brilliant writer, but he was a horrific teacher.  And although Carver wasn’t exactly his student, when he edited his manuscript, he edited a large part of Raymond Carver, the man.  As I mark up student papers in red pen, I wonder sometimes if  I might be missing the point.  As I mark up run-on sentences and fragments, I worry sometimes that I’m not listening to what the sentences are really saying.  And they’re right there.  Right in front of me.  All 26 letters.


Enola is Alone Spelled Backwards

“Unpublished, unprocessed, never read out loud to anyone except a cat and/or the mirror,” boasted the eblast.  I marched up to the front of the packed house in the same shoes I wore the day I got married.  They were missing a few rhinestones, and some of the lace was peeling off my left pointed toe.  I had discovered I was nervous a few moments before, when I realized I wasn’t listening to the reader who went right before me, and that my hand was shaking on my wine glass.  I took a deep sip of my wine, and a deep gulp of air, and marched my beating heart up to the front of the room.

I read from my creative nonfiction project that ruminates over the lives of my grandparents during WW II, as my grandfather developed the atom bomb in Los Alamos, and my grandmother followed him obediently into a life of secrecy.  It chronicles their resulting depression when the bomb was dropped.  I told the salon that I didn’t know if this was a story I could write.  “I can’t wrap my mind around 90,000 people dying in an instant,” I explained.  What right did I have to tell this story?  I feared that my publisher wanted me to write it as a page turner.  I didn’t want to write this story just to titillate.  I wanted to do justice to the very real humans on the other side of the nonfiction mirror.

I found myself miraculously encouraged by an audience composed of DePaul  and SAIC professors, indie press editors, and professional authors of all makes and kinds. Like spitfire, they shot out suggestions ranging from incorporating my grandfather’s math, to putting more of my own vulnerable voice into the story.  “Just say, I don’t know how to tell this story,” one offered.  “You’ll figure it out through the writing process,” offered another.  I walked away feeling exhilarated, motivated, and full of fireworks.

But from the comfort and seclusion of my living room couch, I realized there was more to that exhilaration.  It wasn’t just the ideas that had sparked my passion.  It was the shared community of authors and thinkers who had listened and commiserated.  I felt a little less alone on the isolated pathway through the woods.  And I realized, then, that what I really learned from the experience came from asking my own questions, in those seconds before I got the answers.  I had needed a community to hear me first.  And then I had needed to listen to my own questions hanging on the air.

In second semester seminar this week, we started cultivating plans for our own instructional inquiries.  I surprised myself with my excitement over my own tentative proposal to investigate the Socratic method in the classroom, linked to Noam Chomsky’s cognitive development theory.  I decided I wanted to focus on the power of the interrogative rather than the declarative.  In fact, I was so excited sitting in seminar, that I sent proposals of my theory to my mentor, and a few other faculty members in my department to get reactions and reading suggestions.  Andy Ball gave me Aquinas, Hume, Descartes, and Derrida.  Then my mentor, Ben Rubin, pulled the carpet from beneath me.  “There’s nothing magic about Socrates,” he insisted, and instead he offered me structuralism and post-structuralism.  I found myself back at square one, looking at a blinking cursor, wondering about words.

In an unsteady world of signs and signifiers, and nuanced interpretations of homographs, homonyms, and connotations, there’s not much that can clearly be asserted as true or correct, if anything at all.  But that playful uncertainty is exactly the murky terrain that I love so much about literature.  I love that when Hamlet ponders, “To be or not to be,” he may be contemplating suicide, or he may be having an existential crisis, or it may be Shakespeare himself questioning the metaphysics of the fourth wall.  I love the loose ends that keep sending me down the rabbit hole.

I may be no closer to narrowing in on my instructional inquiry than I was yesterday.  But, I have a whole slew of new questions.  And I love that turning to Andy and turning to Ben sent me back in a downward spiral.  Because every time I think I know which way is up in literature, it’s time to lose my footing.  And I suspect it’s the same way for teaching.  That way I can spend my whole life searching for answers.  And the answers will keep changing as well as the students.  But there will be one constant.  Like the moment before I received the answers, as I stood in the salon, pouring my heart off the page in the form of long and tangled sentences, unwrapping the mesh of WW II in a quiet, well-furnished living room in Evanston, I realized the magic of that moment was in the awkward pause.  I had read out loud to someone besides the cat and/or the mirror.  And in the moment before the response, I was alone with myself and my words.

I found myself reflecting on my working book title, “Ships Named After Women,” and all the great and horrible ships of warfare named after mothers and lovers.  I found myself thinking about the Enola Gay, the ship that delivered the atomic bomb to Hiroshima.  I found myself remembering that even the Enola Gay had been named for a mother, and then I started wondering about the signs, signifiers, connotations, and nuances of being alone.   After all, Enola was alone spelled backwards.  And in order to write  I have to be alone.  But I think I realized last night, as I explored structuralism and the theories of opposites, that without first establishing a writing community, there is no definition of alone.  And this correlates to my role as teacher like a ship sailing away into the horizon, after sixteen weeks, my student will be alone.  I want to leave them alone with their questions, like a trial of breadcrumbs.

the Monster in the Mirror

“Artificial intelligence has been mis-named,” Noam Chomsky preached to a standing room only sea of millenials, in a cavernous, packed church in Hyde Park on Monday evening.  “It should have been called natural stupidity.”  I sat on a side bench, twisting to see his head behind a large corinthian column.  I wanted to connect his face to what I recalled from reading his books over ten years ago, in an introductory level US history course as an undergraduate.  The class had been a G.E. requirement, and outside my primary interests.  In fact, I had kind of dreaded that class.  But there I was, ten years later, flocking toward Hyde Park, one set of headlights in a sea of lightbulbs inching south on Lake Shore Drive. I don’t remember any specifics from class.  I remember debating “hegemony” and “arcs of power.”  And I remember getting really excited about politics for the first time.  In Second Semester Seminar, we revisited an earlier discussion about deeper learning, as in what will students really remember five years out?  Well, I still can’t quite place my finger on what it was I recalled from that class that lulled me south like a magnetic field towards Hyde Park late on Monday, prior to the less than stimulating presidential debate.  Maybe I was frustrated with the political climate of the election noise, and I wanted to get back in touch with that deeper passion for world affairs.   Or maybe it was just a chance to meet the man who inspired the teacher who inspired me.  But I think it was less of a “what” and more of a “whimsy.”  It was a feeling.  I wanted to tap back into an energy I remembered, a sort of electricity buzzing in the air.

This week we found ourselves reading a lot about essential questions.  At first, I was really frustrated with the reading.  The reading distinguished between leading questions, questions that hook, and questions that guide, and offered examples in different contexts. But I just kept thinking about Socrates.  Wasn’t this Socratic questioning, camouflaged in the pedagogical acronyms and semantics of education research?  It didn’t seem a new or surprising revelation to me in any way, although it was certainly a very valuable concept.

But then we started talking about memory.  And I immediately recalled a class I took with Professor Jesse Ball back when I was a graduate student at SAIC.  The class had been called “Pamphleteering,” which was an umbrella term for handing out self-published chapbooks on street corners.  Professor Ball led a creative workshop by Socratic methods.  We were only allowed to speak in interrogative phrases.  In other words, in order to critique a story, rather than react to it, or reflect on it, or pick apart nuances of the text, we had to ask each other questions.  In response to questions, we had to ask further questions.  As a student, I hated it.  As an author, I was frustrated.  ‘Just tell me whether this character worked!’ I wailed, or ‘Was this believable? Yes or no?’  It was uncomfortable, and there was a lot of quiet.  What I remember most about it now was how difficult it was to think in questions.  We had to learn to process our thoughts much more slowly.

Anyhow, I started reflecting more and more on memory.  I do an exercise in class that I had to do myself as a student in art school.  I set up a still-life in the hallway, just out of view from the class.  It has to be at minimum about fifteen steps away from the classroom.  I ask the students walk outside and look at the still-life, then walk all the way back to their chairs and draw what they remember.  I remember hating this as a student.  Again, it disrupted the perfectionist in me who wanted my painting to “look” like the world, or my story to be believable.  Basically, it made it impossible for me to paint or think in any way that I was used to.  I get excited every time I do this activity precisely because I know the students will hate it.  I want them to.  Sometimes, students have to be uncomfortable in order to learn.  They will struggle to remember.  And they most likely won’t remember the color of the shoe or the title of the book, but maybe they’ll remember the struggle. It will be a break from their established thought patterns, and a chink in the shiny veneer of their otherwise spotless education.  After revisiting these concepts in Second Semester Seminar, I am planning to also revisit this assignment in the closing weeks of the semester, to test what they remember of the still-life after sixteen weeks.  Will they remember anything at all?  Will they cease to remember the still-life and instead remember their own drawing?  What happens when rather than remembering reality, we remember our own transcription of that reality?  Do we start to remember the world through a vantage point?  Are we only looking through a very narrow peephole?  Can we trust our memories?  Are stories ever real?  These are only a few of the essential questions that I would hope to foster.  Because ultimately, rather than identifying true north, I want students to question which way is up in a chaotic and multi-dimensional world.

Additionally, there is a definite tension between the teaching of essential questions and deeper, thematic learning, and that which I must teach in order for students to pass the portfolio review.  However, I know that thematic questioning is important to my department as our SLO’s reflect: rather than sentence structures and essay forms, our SLO’s denote critical thinking as a primary outcome.  But I need to find a way to balance the two systems.  My aim is to walk the line from structure and format to questioning the world through identities and empathy transmuted by the lens of literature.  Leonardo DaVinci once said, “Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.”  And then I suppose he returned to buying caged birds and setting them free, and simultaneously sewing the wings of doves onto frogs to see if they might fly.  Even DaVinci operated through constraints.  And he spent his life asking questions.

Sometimes, when I am writing, I feel as though a part of my brain is glowing blue and purple.  It’s a feeling I’ve had for a few years.  I’ve read about synaesthesia, but I don’t quite think that’s it.  I think it has something to do with my relationship to writing.  For me, writing is a form of daydreaming.  So when I read, it’s like I’m seeing into someone else’s dreams.  I started trying to be more mindful about my own essential questions.  I find myself often reading and analyzing stories hinging around monster metaphors.  And I ask my class to do the same.  So I started planning a syllabus for the spring for a themed class entitled, “The Monster in the Mirror.”  The class will be structured around questions.  And rather than seeking answers, I want the class to seek further questions.

However, I found myself frustrated again with the reading in Make It Stick that claimed, “Rereading a text, and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they’re also among the least productive.”   Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel criticized re-reading as a waste of time, and espoused that there are more useful methods.  Of course, I understand.  For certain types of knowledge, flashcard retrieval is more efficient.  Puzzles work.  Retrieval practice is incredibly useful.  But any time I hear definitive unqualified language saying something is ALWAYS better than something else, little alarm bells start going off in my brain.  I think learning is much messier than that.  And much more individualized.  I don’t doubt that studying various efficacy of a multitude of approaches is useful.  I’m just wary of language that claims to have identified a single,uniform solution for a whole nights sky full of headlights in the traffic, slowly floating south.

Each time I re-read a book, I feel myself lighting up different colors.  Hunter S. Thompson famously re-typed the Great Gatsby word for word in order to get the feeling and flow of writing a masterpiece.  I read Noam Chomsky, but I still found myself lost in a sea of bodies in a packed church waiting patiently to hear him speak, looking up at the barrel arches and feeling small.  When the closing question was posed to Noam, the whole audience seemed to lean towards him, all our heads and hearts grasping for his words as though they were the sun.  “What gives you hope?” the facilitator asked, and for a moment as he paused to answer, the audience as a collective whole scrambled to answer for ourselves.  We demonstrated retrieval practice; we tried to write the poem without first learning about the form.  The myriad colors of our activated brains were like Christmas lights.  The whole church was illuminated by our thoughts.

Noam looked out slowly at the audience. “Take a walk in any city,” he started. “There’s so much that needs to be done.” He looked at the college students standing in the aisles, the young business professionals cramped into the balcony, he scanned the whole crowd of youth, almost exclusively under the age of 40.  Then he continued,  “People like you,” he said, and was thanked with a standing ovation, because what filled us with hope were people like him.