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.







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