Whitelash Whiplash: Welcome to Trumpland

Every morning, I walk by larger than life prints of Malcolm X, and I reflect for just a few brief moments on the life of a man who is the namesake of a school that represents a sanctuary for marginalized voices.  His face looks so confident.  His profile so chiseled.  He looks like a hero.  And yet, each morning, as I march towards the neon lights of my waiting classroom, I reflect on the duality of his heroism.  This was a man so pushed to the brink of desperation out of fear for the well-being of his own family and loved ones, that he combined forces with other marginalized souls, found a home, located some solace, and exercised force to police the police.  When I teach about him, I think it’s important to address this duality as his most human quality.  I want my classes to question the notion of heroes.  And consequently, I want them to question the idea of villains. Because it is much easier to dehumanize someone if we think they are pure evil.  If Superman has no one to fight, is he still a hero?  Is he demoted to just a man in tights?  Why do we insist on understanding people as all only one thing?  Humans are so much messier than that.   I have to wonder, is the story arc of literature to blame?

So when I teach about Malcolm X, I emphasize that he chose peace in the end.  Maya Angelou explains it beautifully as she reflects on his choices: “Malcolm, having said that all whites are blue eyed devils…He went to Mecca…and he said, ‘I have met white skinned, blue eyed men who I openly call brother.   I was wrong.’  Now It takes a great deal of courage to say that.”  I think it’s so telling that she emphasizes his reflection, and his willingness to grow and change as one his most heroic qualities.  Maya Angelou claims that it is very dangerous to represent our heroes as flawless.   She continues, “One of the mistakes made is the historian and social historian…oft times recreate the man or woman as larger than life.  Which puts the person beyond the reach of a young person.  So, if Malcolm and Martin, and Abraham Lincoln and Kennedy, if Dr. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune are beyond their reach, then they say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do.  Those people are bigger than life.  I’m just myself…What can I do?’ So the wisest thing is to make the people accessible; show their wiles, their wits and their warts. Show them, so a person can say, ‘you know, given the same circumstance, I think I’d of done that too.  I’d like to think I could have done that.’”  And so I try to lead by example.  I emphasize that it is our wiles, our wits, and our warts that make our artwork relatable, because they make us human.  Being scared, being unsure, and being angry are all essential and natural responses to trauma.

However, when I went into school on Wednesday after the election results, I was all of those things: scared, unsure, and angry.   Worse yet, I was heartbroken.  I didn’t expect the sun to rise.  I promised myself I would stick to the lesson plan, and then I only had 5 students show up for a class of 26.  Three of them were crying because they were afraid their families would be deported.  So I knew we had to talk about it.

As an educator, I have a contract against campaigning in the classroom.  But the rhetoric of the election on both sides became a large part of my subject matter this semester.  This election filled with mud-slinging was the perfect vehicle for teaching fallacies.  To counter that, we read speeches: from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman.”  We discussed conciliatory voice, ethics, and lying in literature and in politics.  And we concluded that words, like people, are simultaneously very beautiful and very dangerous.  On the one hand they can stimulate poetry that offers empathy and communication, that helps us transcend our own perspectives and identities, that breathes out a sigh of hope into the world.  On the other hand, when used as weapons, words dehumanize.  They can legitimize crimes against humanity, warfare, and genocide.  And they have many times before.  As a class, we need to address this.  We need to look at our cultural amnesia.  We need to ask ourselves how many years it will be before our culture forgets our own lived tragedies, from 09/11 to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and devastatingly, the list goes on.  The events that determine our lifetimes will vanish with the memory loss of a forgetful society.  As Holocaust survivors and proponents of civil rights leave this earth for some other realm, writing down their words can ensure that the future might remember.  So I invest in language time and time again.  I put all my energy, love, and dreams into poetry.  I believe that words are our only hope.

So I find solace in sentences.  I write and I read and I participate in a literary community that spurs my spirits.  I know that everyone who is writing secretly just wants to be heard.  But unless we learn to read, review, and participate in the shared governance of communication, none of us will ever be heard.  We must first learn to listen.

I watched this tectonic shift towards listening on my own social media pages.  All my friends were writers. And then all those writers became professors.  So when I scroll through Facebook, I see people reflecting on “whitelash” and the win for anti-intellectualism and the rejection of political correctness, not any longer as ‘how do we write this?’ but instead they ask, ‘How do we teach this?’  We are in an unprecedented space.  None of us know what to do.  And yet we have to stand in front of the classroom and do something.

And watching the divide from the safety of my computer screen, it seems that we just keep fracturing.  The polarization is only getting worse.  First liberals were heartbroken.  Then we learned that the middle of the country, William H. Gass’ “heart of the heart” were heartbroken all along.  And we see the bigotry, the racism, the sexism, the parcelling out of the rhetoric.  Everyone is legitimizing.  “He won’t do all that stuff he said in his campaign,” they claim, or “We don’t approve of how he treats women, but he’s just a very passionate man,” or “I voted for him because he represented change.”  I tried so hard to believe that all those people who voted for him couldn’t possibly be closet racists.  They must have legitimized and rationalized their votes.  But I can’t shake my own nausea at the thought that while probably they’re not all racist, the possibility undeniably exists, that maybe they could be.

In explanation, my acquaintances on the right proclaimed a faith in the bible.  My dearest friends on the left too, advised me that their faith in God would get us through this.  I listened to them, wishing to high heaven that I could make myself believe in God.  That would be such a nice sense of security right now.  But I also listened to them and worried.  Because if we tell ourselves that this is God’s will, that God has a plan, then is there anything we won’t accept?  How far does it have to go?  I see swastikas on barns and “Trump” written on Muslim Student Unions in my Newsfeed.  I see large pinatas of Trump’s head being set on fire.  And I can’t recognize my own world.  We’re broken in the heart of the heart of the heart of the country.

And still, I have to go in on Monday, walk by Malcolm X watching me larger than life on the wall, strut around in front of my class and say something.  And I don’t know what to say.  None of us do.  I know that as a country, we have been through worse before.  But we made the mistake of taking that past for granted. We thought we had moved on.  And I see the sides fracturing.  Some are pointing fingers at protesters and defending democracy.  Others are organizing a million women march.  They keep chanting and fighting.  And people keep asking me where I stand.  But I’m not standing at all.  I’m falling.  We all are.  Welcome to Trumpland.  It’s a long way to the bottom.

This is where I usually try to write something uplifting to close.  So I turn to what I can believe in, instead of God, and I suppose that’s love.  Maya Angelou says, “Love is a condition so powerful it may be that which holds the stars in the firmament.  It may be that which pushes and pulls the blood in the veins.  You must have courage to love someone.  Because you risk everything.  Everything.”  So here I go.  As you read this sentence, because you, like me, are a flawed human, you are already beginning to forget it.  As you read this next sentence, you are forgetting the last.  So if you walk away from this remembering only one thing, make it this: Whoever you are- conservative, liberal, Muslim, Mexican, immigrant, Jewish, LGBTQ, disabled, or if you are a veteran and you have risked your very life for whatever it is that America stands for in our heart of heart of hearts, remember this: I love you.  I always have.  I always will.

 

R.I.P.

Maya Angelou  1928-2014

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

This is Not a Book Review

magrittepipe

This is not a book review!  The subject of this post is not Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner as authors, poets, philosophers, or thinkers.  It’s not about the way they transcend time and connect us directly to Rene Magritte’s primitive, intimate, reflective thoughts and ventures.  It’s not about the fact that they allow us access to Magritte’s own brain waves and neuroses by translating his French and bringing his essays, reflections, and poetic musings to light for a contemporary audience, and render him accessible for a whole new generation of readers.  This review takes as its subject instead, their virtue and commitment in the field of education.

We recently read and discussed Lee Shulman’s article, “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Personal Account and Reflection” in our Second Semester Seminar.  As I read, I found myself growing alarmed at times by some of Shulman’s assumptions.  Shulman opens the article with a parable about an aging Jewish schoolteacher in Poland (or Melamed in Yiddish) and his wise wife.  He reflects on the story saying:

The attractions of that story will be obvious to anyone in higher education. For far too many of our colleagues, teaching is not the central function of an academic career. It is our “load,” the annoying obligation that interrupts our writing, and the burden we carry that brings us few of the joys of promotion, tenure and prestige. It’s what we do “on the side.”

As I read this explanation, on the one hand, I grasped Shulman’s point about dedication to teaching as a scholarship of its own, and on the other hand, I was frustrated, irate, and even offended as someone who identifies as an author and artist, and who in fact does, “teach on the side.” I am part of a community of other authors and artists who also “teach on the side.”  This is a community filled with passionate storytellers and poets, who find themselves leaning on teaching as their livelihood.  It doesn’t necessarily detract from our teaching that our first passion was our art.  On the contrary, I think it amplifies it.

As I watched Kathleen Rooney and Eric Plattner standing in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, reading and teaching about Magritte- his words, his lessons, and his life, I was mesmerized as they unveiled his words in English for the first time.  The audience was composed mostly of Rooney’s and Plattner’s own students, and as Rooney told the story of her quest for the manuscript, she reminded her students that she followed the same advice that she so often offers up in class: “Look it up!”  And she did look it up, again and again.  To me, this is what real teaching is.  Teaching brings  the wildly unattainable lost secrets of history to light.  It makes professional success in the field feel accessible to a student.  It excites students into becoming involved in the community.  It takes outdated words written and forgotten from another language, transmutes them and makes them potent and meaningful for an 18 year old walking down Michigan avenue in 2016, looking up Roland Barthes on his or her iphone.  Because what else should education be about?  Rooney and Plattner made the philosophers of the past accessible, and then beckoned their students to keep the conversation going.

As I re-read Shulman, and reflected on our conversation in Seminar, I wondered if we at City Colleges have in fact allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from professionalism in our fields.  Rather than priding ourselves on research, press, and publications, we pride ourselves on being good teachers.  While this is definitely an important focus, and encourages us to invest in teaching as a field worth researching independently, the downfall of ONLY thinking this way is the potential stagnation of that electricity and excitement in our own fields that we might pass onto our students.

If I’m teaching developmental English, and I focus on that alone in my course, my students will miss out on the opportunity to question the world through the lens of literature.  They will miss the opportunity to hear words spoken in real time and space at the numerous author’s salons and readings that take place every single day in the thriving literary community of Chicago.  Worse still, their perceptions of themselves will be limited as they see their relationship to words as only developmental  writing and 5 paragraph argument, rather than what it might become– immersion into a wild and uncertain terrain where words behave more like music: mysterious signifiers of meaning with alternating interpretations, sounds, inflections, connotations, and histories all their own, and even vibrato as they are consumed and translated by various perspectives and numerous ears.

As I stood in that audience watching Rooney and Plattner banter about the hunt and mystery of their quest for the manuscript, it struck me that this was unlike the average reading.  They weren’t promoting their own work at all.  This was a teaching moment.  They were prying open their process and struggles, and serving it up to an eager audience composed primarily of their own De Paul students, indie book store owners, local authors, museum goers, and intellectuals in the field at large.  By doing so, Rooney and Plattner beckoned their students to venture out into the world, and rub elbows with professionals.  In this way, they are holding them to a standard they use for themselves, as if to say: ‘this level of success is attainable for you.’  And the students’ eyes were ablaze with possibility and enchantment.  By sharing wholeheartedly, this complex, layered research became attainable.  At one point, a student even asked whether there is a project in place for Magritte’s writings, volume 2.  To which Rooney responded without missing a beat, “You want to take it on?” This tapped into an excitement I recall from long ago as an undergraduate, when one of my professors published a new book or review.  Standing in proximity to such scholarly success made me feel connected to it, proud of it, and privy to it.  It made me feel destined for it.

Nevermind that the Art Institute Bookstore wouldn’t carry their book because it was a University Press, although said Bookstore had no problem selling magnets and bookmarks with better profit margins.  Rooney and Plattner navigated that slippery slope as a constant reminder that even museums, even schools, are businesses driven by capitalism like everyone else.  They utilized the lesson as an opportunity to encourage critical thinking, and reminded students to question the world around them: from their textbooks, to their surroundings, to their own assumptions.  The whole experience became a teachable moment.  Because what was being taught was not poetic forms or research guidelines, what was being celebrated instead was a thirst for knowledge, a deep and persistent critical thinking and intellectual curiosity that at once connects students to Magritte across the vortex of time, and simultaneously connects students to the world around them, the fabric of September 2016 Chicago.  Because Rooney and Plattner can’t force anybody to learn any more than the rest of us.  We have to teach ourselves.  What happens in the classroom, like this review that is not a review, is not an education.  Until you read it for yourself.

 

A Place for Poetry

Trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love with poetry is like trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love.  The world around me didn’t blur, Louis Armstrong didn’t sing, the wind didn’t blow just for us.  It was more gradual than that.  Poetry opened doors for me, and poetry fed my hunger.  It persisted through small shifts in the armature of my bones.  My own heart became a beating semi-colon, pausing for just one pulse before the emphasis.

And now, I teach art, creative writing, and composition in a community college where students claim they don’t “get” poetry.  Then they turn up the volume on their headphones and bob their heads to music and mouth the words.  Poetry is inherent and intuitive for all of us.  The rules can be evasive.  Formlessness itself becomes a form.  I often find myself trying to pinpoint what I love so much about poetry.  There is something about the silences between words, the inhale interrupting the tempo of the slam poet, the anticipation as we turn the page.  Sometimes, by saying something that means nothing at all, we are much closer to saying something.

My debut book of poetry, “In Lieu of Flowers,” was dubbed a collage in book form for the way it transmuted narrative and abstraction through text, painting, and fabric collage.  Painting has always been an essential part of my process, and at times the writing takes a back seat to colors and forms.  Sometimes, I spend whole summers exploring my poems and stories as large scales murals sprawling across walls in the city.  Other times, I am reminded that my writing is the beating heart of my painting.

My first book contemplated our relationship to flowers.  Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death.  I’m fascinated by the roles flowers play in our rituals– that we designate some flowers for funerals, and others for weddings.  And I think it’s very interesting that there’s some overlap.  Some flowers have their roots in two worlds, and I relate to that as someone who is a little confused.  Most of my work is about memorial, and I suppose I’m planting words like flowers to make peace with my memories.

My current project also catalogues memories.  I have turned to nonfiction as I research the story of my Orthodox Jewish grandparents who worked in secrecy on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during WW II.  This project functions primarily as memorial, but doubles as a personal connection to a complex historical context, that finds itself critically relevant today in an increasingly xenophobic society.  The atomic bomb casts an ominous shadow over the narrative.  It haunts the characters, and the words themselves, casting even my own grandparent’s love story into the horrific nightmare of war.  Ultimately, it offers my grandparents a sort of double life as I find myself reacquainted with them once again, this time through an adult consciousness, only to lose them all over again as the pages turn.By shifting between the perspectives of my toiling grandparents, and alternating paintings with sentences, this book asks the question: what did the world look like before the sphere of online voices became a force of social justice?  What did the typewriter ding sound like echoing off the Jemez mountains, towering over the cloudy skies of pre-modernity America?  If we listen closely to the words on the page, can we hear the past?  What is the point of all this poetry?  What is waiting for us in the empty space on the next page?  If I plant my words deep enough, will they bloom?

*

This blog exists as a space for reflection, reviews, and all laments poetical.  One thing I have learned from living in Chicago is that literary citizenship is an essential part of writing, just as lifelong learning is an essential part of teaching.  If I want others to review my writing, I have to review the work of others!  If I want students to be open minded to my comments, I have to be openminded to theirs as well.  I urge you to disagree with me!  I welcome you to read over my shoulder as I reflect on classroom practices, review books from indie presses, receive critiques from author salons, celebrate the whir of traffic, the screaming car alarms, the words hanging off ledges and high rises, and the metronome of walking, walking, walking that IS Chicago.

Tonight, I did a memory exercise in class.  I put a still life in the hallway and asked the students to draw it.  The only catch was they had to walk to the still life, walk back to the paper, and draw what they remembered.  The other catch was that this was an english class, not an art class.  What resulted was a conversation about perception and personal hierarchy.  Who drew the shoe?  Who drew the flowers?  What was the book title?  Why did you focus on the butterflies?  We then read a story by Aimee Bender, entitled, “The Rememberer.” The story catalogues the reverse evolution of a character who leaves a loved one behind as he morphs from ape to sea turtle, to tadpole, to nothingness.  The class debated the metaphor.  Some said cancer.  Some said drugs.  Many said death.  But they all read their own ending.  In other words, the magic of abstraction is that we each live our own narratives.  “What is the answer?” demanded one student.

“We know you know the answer!” exclaimed another.

“I’m sorry guys,” I found myself laughing.  “There are no answers in english class.”  And as I said it, I paused, and realized it was true.