On Being: Lessons From the Farm — Life, Death and Self-Reliance

For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices

and for Jon

I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.

Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?

My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.

My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.

My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in scalding water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this genteel country life at my back urging me along.

But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.

I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.

Who directed whom to what?

I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.

Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)

Answer: I don’t know. It just is.

Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.

Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country.  But we may have forgotten this.

I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.

A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.

No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live.  They depend on me — I them.

My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.

Chelsey on SunciWe had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).


Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.

Virgil Rocket, the Belgan

My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one.  My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.

I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations.   Adaptation is how we all evolve.

In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”

Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?

The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard.  “Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved“Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”

FrankyAlmost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.

The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.

That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?

These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.


Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?

The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.

On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.

In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.

I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.

I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before  that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.

I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real — life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted.

Sheep with Chief

Through The Personal Lens: Reconceiving Language and Education




Scenarios for Teaching Writing is a one semester long (12 wks) course in the Education Studies Program at Middlebury. It is supported by Middlebury’s Education in Action, The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Dean of the College. It is also supported by Middlebury alumni and parents of current Middlebury students, all of whom reside in New York and provide housing for Middlebury students.  And it’s supported by Media and Communications High School.  What makes this collaboration possible is the idea that education requires responsibility; that what we learn and how we learn have to be shared, particularly with K-12 partners; and that education has to be thought of as a K-16 continuum since the challenges we face as a society – early education, on one end, and an ongoing commitment to continue an education, on the other – have to guide us towards creative solutions.  Scenarios for Teaching Writing is one small step in this direction, modeling a living classroom struggling to create byways for self-actualization.

The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education

The Chicago Teachers’ Strike is a perfect storm without solutions: teachers are unhappy about stringent evaluation methods that rely solely on data, the Board of Education wants to determine the best qualified teachers by linking teacher performance to student (tested) performance, and politicians, realizing that American education is, at best, woeful, are feeling the pinch and want to increase standards, particularly given the rising cost of education. Not sure how to do this, politicians hammer at collective bargaining. And all this is agitated by a media hell bent on reporting on the process, unable to locate the right questions that will get us to the origins of the problem. Caught in the middle of this tempest, students and their families, many of whom are from the poorest communities, are left alone in a dinghy of despair and confusion, the sole concern being how are the kids going to spend their day. Thus, the perfect storm — but there is a solution, a simple one.

The strike is a sign of unprecedented frustration. There are no solutions, from any side, that make sense because everywhere we look, solutions look like methods of discipline and punish. We’re proceeding on shaky footing. There is one truth, though: there will be more suffering, more confusion and, most importantly, no learning. Unable to ask the right questions, we’re destined to repeat what we’ve done in the past, ensuring a continuing decline in education and a further separation of socioeconomic classes. We will then fall further behind in this transition period where we’re moving towards a more science oriented, technological society.

Chris Ware, The New Yorker, Sept 12, 2012

The frustration all sides feel is caused by perspectives that still follow an analog view of the world. We’re looking for solutions that look back to the old brick and mortar school house: kids in neat classrooms, a tired curriculum, standardized, high-stakes testing; and the teacher still standing in the front of the classroom talking at students, rather than working with students. It’s a static view of a dynamic, always changing world outside the school house, captured beautifully by the graphic novelist, Chris Ware, in the September 12 issue of The New Yorker: Students enter a dark, ominous school, the last young girl in the line looking sad eyed at the parents who have turned their backs on their kids and are enjoying their bikes and lattes while texting, chatting merrily away from their dejected children. Parents have not asked the right questions either.

We are in a digital world, yet we remain mired in the muck of analog solutions. Today, education approaches learning hierarchically,when we can only change — and better — the system by thinking horizontally, the promise of technology used creatively. The world is flat, as Thomas Friedman informs us constantly, but education doesn’t seem to see it that way.

Elite higher education institutions understand that the world has changed. Stanford University, Harvard, Columbia, Duke, MIT — have all launched online systems for free in the hopes of attracting people from all walks of life. This will allow these schools to corner a market while learning a lot about those who participate. It’s an effective way to keep their respective brands at the top of a vertical educational system, while also pushing education forward.

In this very interesting online experiment there is a solution that can literally alter education for some time to come — but it takes courage and some doing, with little money. All that’s needed is will and fortitude, imagination and a desire, a real desire to do what’s best for kids — the bottom line.

Here’s how it can be done:

  1. Lectures, interactions, critiques, assessments, student work, etc, is online, constantly being tweaked, re-assessed, revised and re-delivered. In the meantime, knowledge is being built in unprecedented ways. This is knowledge about how students learn, as well as content specific knowledge. It’s too vital to dismiss; it’s also a tragedy if we leave this learning only in the hands of elite institutions, though these schools are open to all comers.
  2. Elite universities and colleges have incredible programs for incredibly talented students. I know, I teach in one. I know what these students can do — and I’ve tested what I’m saying here. For 3 consecutive years I’ve been teaching a course, Scenarios for Teaching Writing. This is a course for kids in education or for kids interested in teaching at some point. And for 3 years we’ve been working with the Media & Communications High School in Washington Heights, NY. We do the work face-to-face (we visit the campus), and we then work online, using a simple tool — Google docs. Students submit work and Middlebury students guide, mentor and tutor the kids in Washington Heights. Middlebury students follow the theoretical frameworks of composition theory that they learn in class; they have to present, day in and day out, their work to the class, justifying their approaches. My role is to help them; it is also to work with the principal of the high school and the teachers involved. Everyone wins. The most important aspect of this is that the model is highly scalable and cheap. The technology — thanks to Google — is free. (Community Works Institute will publish an article about our work in an upcoming publication.)
  3. The what if: What if, as a way of proving what these students are learning, college students in, say, History 101, take their lessons — from online and in class — and tweak these lessons with a partner in a public school — a teacher and her staff — to fit the needs of her students?
  4. What if these lessons — the revised lessons meant for students in the public school setting — are piped through the same online tools used by elite institutions, delivered straight to their classrooms, their homes, their communities? Automatically, the school day — and year — is extended.
  5. And what if the students in our colleges and universities, as part of their curriculum, work together with their respective education studies programs, psychology and sociology departments that know about “how children learn and succeed,” and use this knowledge to tutor and mentor the younger kids in public education?

This is not rocket science and very easy to do. Within two to three years of launching this process, literally all public education would change in America. In fact, education K-16 would change as well.

What are the outcomes of this model?

  1. Students in public schools spend more time learning, though not necessarily in the school; the “longer school day” isn’t more busy time, more brick and mortar thinking, more traditional high-stakes testing, rather, education is fluid and dynamic, inspirational and meaningful, meeting the student where she lives and how she lives: knowledge applied to real world learning to solve real world challenges.
  2. Students in public education are then assessed dynamically because technology enables an easy flow for assessment; it is a natural piece of the learning — and immediate, which is vital to learning, the red line appearing the minute a word is misspelled in a document. That’s how easy assessment is done on the fly.
  3. Technology, as we now realize, requires face-to-face interactions that are intense and focused on what has evolved online.  My Scenarios for Teaching Writing students learned this.  For public school students, this means that demonstrating what they know, in face-to-face interactions moves away from the standardized test or rote learning, engaging them in more meaningful and realistic ways.
  4. Likewise, it means that all of us can more critically and creatively work on non-cognitive skills, in person, such as the building of character, as recently shown by Paul Tough in How Children SucceedFor the very first time, by partnering with technology, we can educate the whole person.
  5. The college/university student is engaged in community service, able to fully realize how and why theoretical frameworks actually work — or not. And the college student, along with her professor, are immediately assessing and adjusting, fine tuning lessons to suit individual students, another characteristic of technology.
  6. The college/university student serves as mentor and teacher, collaborating and cooperating with her university teacher and with the public school teacher, becoming the bridge for life-long learning.
  7. Public school teachers receive ongoing, dynamic development, guided by the university curriculum, enhancing content knowledge, pedagogy, and a new understanding of what it is to work side-by-side with machines — the future.
  8. And, perhaps the most impressive result, is learning how to build a community that is focused on (a) gaining new knowledge, in different ways, (b) realizing that this brave new world requires very different approaches to solving problems, and, (c), come to understand that engaging diverse minds will lead to better results.

This is not pie in the sky thinking, not romanticism; rather, this is how this new scientific-technological world works. At the end of my Scenarios for Teaching Writing, literally all students did presentations using Prezi, responding to a singular question: given your experience in this course, and your students in Washington Heights, what do you know and what do you see? The students in the Scenarios class have become even more committed to education writ large; many are education minors and see education as a future. Don’t we want more of this from our college students?

This work begins to solve problems: all teachers, whether in public schools or the university, working together, building  models for life-long learning, a pre-requisite for the “good life” in the coming century; the assessment tension is removed since it’s ongoing, fluid and dynamic, always present and performed per task, per endeavor; these endeavors are rich in inquiry and what we’re looking at are the solutions, the varied applications to problems, be these social, economic, pedagogical and scientific – technological.  Thus we are engaged in a process of building new systems to address yet unforeseen challenges in economics, society, the environment.

The mentoring public school children need, particularly if they’re from socio-economically challenged backgrounds, is always ongoing; the move from high school to college, would be fluid, seamless — and inspired early on. And if the child decides to work and go to college online, that’s also available. All options are on the table and students and their families are free to choose. The point is that education is, here, available at all times and able to fit different types of learning needs and goals — all assessable.

If we continue to search for solutions by simply saying that children aren’t learning and that unions are obstructionist and politicians are only focused on getting re-elected — the old way of thinking today — we won’t get anywhere. The tit-for-tat world we find ourselves in isn’t working. We need a fresh start — or, rather, we need a start using what we’re already doing in select circles, Stanford, et al. Political will, clean universal design where everyone benefits and a desire to also change how college students go to school, giving them more responsibility for the way we actually live, is a great leap forward to solving our problems. It’s not hard, but this approach, if we can all put our shoulders to the wheel, will change the face of education and begin to address the many problems we face.

Let’s get to work — but let’s do it creatively. Nothing else is working: we know that.

Some Resources

The Vermont Virtual Learning Community


The National Writing Project

National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE)


The Art of MATLAB

Community Works Institute

Other Articles

The Elements of Teaching

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Defining the Liberal Arts in America, in 3 Parts

The Emotional Lives of Teachers

Education and Its Discontents

Higher Education and Education Reform: the Uncanny Stranglehold on Change

Hope Spring Eternal Amidst Decline: the Bard College Model

Pass or Get Out of the Way: Defining the Future for Our Students

Newark’s South Ward: The Miller Street School and the American Paradox

An Education Revolution = A Revolution in Our Communities

The Uncanny Convocation in an Upside Down World

The Last Human Freedoms and the University

Second Guesses and Learning From Students

Writing at the End of the World: Academic Writing and the Struggle to Define the Humanities

The Location of Technology and a Theory of the Present

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”

I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …

I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.

I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.

Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold — a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.

For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?

I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).

In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.

The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.

Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.

It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.

So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4’s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.

In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”

The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.

DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).

In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.

DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:

It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)

There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).

DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).

When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.

Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”

No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.

So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”

In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”

The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.

I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”

Just about every single student raised her/his hand.

“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”

Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)

“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”

“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. ”

“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”

Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.

New Yorker Cover, May 28, 2012. A picture says it all.

There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.

We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.

I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.

A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.

In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”

But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.

Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.

I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.

I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”

I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”

I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.

Says Saul,

We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.

So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”

Defining the Liberal Arts in America, in 3 Parts

1. Finding the Artes Liberales

What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:

  • How do we measure the results of a Liberal Arts education — because we’re data driven and results oriented, thus the investment, in all its metaphorical splendor, must come to something?
  • How do these results measure up to the cost of a Liberal Arts education (in most places above 50K yearly) — because we are, after all, still puritanical and pragmatic?

Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.

In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.

Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)

So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:

The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.

And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.

Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.

2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts

This raises other questions, of course:

  • What goes on in a Liberal Arts education?
  • What, in fact, is the relationship between the Liberal Arts school and the elite in American culture? Is it a conduit that guarantees a place at the table of power?
  • And, given the above two questions, is the place of the Liberal Arts to enable the evolution of critically thinking citizens or is it simply a high-end conveyor belt with some guarantees for wealth?

These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.

Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”

Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?

Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?

My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.

“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.

But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?

A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.

The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.

In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.

3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?

In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”

The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.

“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.

“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.

“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.

What are we doing? Do we even know?

We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.

The humanities — the artes liberales — should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.

We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.

Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?

In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”

There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.

The Emotional Life of Teachers

for Ronni, Sarah, the teachers at Media & Communications High School in the Heights, their students, and for the students in EDST0225(I love to say that, sounds so academic), and for the teachers who are yet to be and who will work to self-actualize

The other day I did what I always do at some point in the morning, black coffee in hand, the house quiet, I checked email. My day changed. There were two emails, one from a student I’ve known for over six years and is now in graduate school in California, the other from a colleague and friend that I’ve known for about 20 years.

From two ends of the teaching spectrum, both emails asked that I think about what I do and who I am. Both asked that I take responsibility for the place I hold in academia. And both emails tugged at my heart and my soul, asking that I voice what I know.

My former student’s subject line was this: “check out my women’s issue blog :)”. The first line of her email read: “Here is your shout out!” And I proceeded to read a copy of a document titled, SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY LIFELINE. She talks about her journey as a writer, early success, change in schooling, the humiliation of suddenly being seen as a poor writer, and the ensuing depression that came with these critiques of her work.

Then she met me. “Professor Vila loved my writing,” she writes. “He and I developed a special mentor relationship that still exists today, 6 years later. He was the first person in years who said that I could and should be a writer. With his belief in me, I pursued my dreams.” She moved to California, became a writer and is now pursuing a graduate degree in psychology

In the other email, my friend and colleague, during her Spring break, went out to Montauk, on Long Island, NY, and felt rejuvenated. I couldn’t help myself, so I asked: why do we need to leave our work to be rejuvenated?

The work of a teacher should rejuvenate her — it should rejuvenate all of us that are teachers. Teaching requires that one’s entire being be present. Roland Barthes, for instance, in his “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers,” tells us that “…language is always a matter of force, to speak is to exercise a will for power; in the realm of speech there is no innocence, no safety.” The teacher, upon walking into the classroom, is well aware of this — no safety, no innocence. It is definitely a will for power.

How do we interpret power in the classroom? What is the location of power in this quite sensual, moving and intensely frightening sphere called the classroom?

To answer these questions, we have to deal with a subject no one in education likes to talk about, the emotional life of a teacher. It is the unspeakable in education — that which should not be named. Yet, if anything, to be a teacher means that you will work with your senses, as well as your mind. Teaching is a science, and an art. And here lies the problem.

It is a problem of power, its representation in the classroom, and how it affects the teacher’s emotional proximity to her students. In the case of my student, above, we “dove in” together, working hard, sometimes with tears, which came back to me when I read her note; and in the case of my friend and colleague, I, too, have jumped into the hard matters of the heart with her because I know for sure that the emotional life of teachers has no support, no avenues for the careful nurturing this needs.

So let’s look at power in the classroom — what it is and how we work with it, but more importantly, how it affects the emotional life of a teacher.

Institutional power, the power of the institution known as the Education System is always present, always a given; it speaks through the teacher and the teacher is it, always. A part of the teacher negotiates, psychologically, the demands of the institution, be it a public school setting, K-12, a public University or a private school. The teacher expends tremendous amounts of energy interpreting, diagnosing, and, ultimately, coming to terms with her role in the place she holds in the academy, a sphere that tries to direct and inspire, but also a sphere that asks for allegiance, subservience.

The teacher is constantly analyzing this role; it occupies a lot of her time. For this — and many other reasons — says Barthes, “every teacher occupies the position of a person in analysis.” That is to say, a teacher, in the act of performing (teaching is a performance — more later on this), falls into the position of the person on the couch before the psychiatrist — she is being analyzed and she must confess. Teaching is showing; it is to show. This requires that the teacher must expose herself in order to show. This is daunting.

Barthes also tells us that “…for the teacher, the student audience is still the exemplary Other in that it has an air of not speaking — and thus, from the bosom of its apparent flatness, speaks in you so much the louder: its implicit speech, which is mine, touches me all the more in that I am not encumbered by its discourse… Whether the teacher speaks or whether the listener urges the right to speak, in both cases we go straight to the analytic couch: the teaching relationship is nothing more than the transference it institutes; ‘science’, ‘method’, ‘knowledge’, ‘idea’ come indirectly, are given in addition — they are left-overs.”

Which means that what is left – over, what is assumed to be the implicit subject of a course or a lesson, is not, in fact, what is primarily going on in a classroom. What then is the primary act in the classroom? What’s going on?

If the teacher is the person on the couch being analyzed, the student is the analysant. Thus, the primary act of any classroom is to create an emotional space that is safe and sound because teachers and students must negotiate their interdependence at an emotional level. Teachers and students must sense that their emotional lives are growing, maturing, coming out, slowly. This is never obvious in tests, assessments, questions about a given equation or theme of a book, but rather, this emotive learning comes out in slight gestures — how a question is asked by a student, the silences and the reluctance to speak, how she raises her hand, where the student sits in proximity to the teacher and others, and so on.

But for the teacher, in her role as the speaker, there is a decision to be made: how close do I want to get to the student?  As the teacher analyzes her position in the academy, she is likewise forced to analyze her relationship to her students. This, too, is an ongoing analysis, an emotional inquiry into the self that asks the teacher to consider who she is and how she wants to represent the left-overs Barthes talks about — the science, the methods, knowledge and ideas. So the first challenge of the teacher is how to perform herself, who she is and what she stands for.

In popular culture, we have two distinct models for teachers, accurately represented in Dead Poets Society and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The first is made obvious by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society:

This is the teacher that has a deep social concern for the souls of students; this is the teacher that understands that self-actualization is why s/he is in teaching; and this is the teacher that understands that s/he must stand against the institution that exists to ensure that the conveyor belt to labor, and that the socioeconomic stratification of society, remains constant.

This romantic figure, a Quixote waving at the windmills of conformity, is reified but discarded; s/he is honored in song and story, but pushed aside and repressed, seen as dangerous to society’s appetite for the status quo.

In 1976, another romantic figure-teacher, Mina Shaughnessy, wrote the classic essay, “Diving In: An Introduction to Basic Writing.” In this essay, Shaughnessy says that when we speak about teaching, we already assume that the only person that has to do some moving in the classroom is the student; we assume that the teacher is stationary and doesn’t have to move anywhere, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This assumption is dangerous and contradicts what Barthes suggests is the place of the teacher.

This gives us another figure of the teacher in popular culture, quite beautifully played by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

This teacher, according to Shaughnessy’s developmental scale for teachers — there are 4 stages — is stuck in what she calls GUARDING THE TOWER: the teacher is concentrating on protecting the tower, including himself / herself, from “outsiders, those who do not seem to belong in the community of learners.” Many teachers are stuck here, particularly those intent on following their Power Point presentations obsessively, even reading from them, making no contact with students:

In the second stage, CONVERTING THE NARRATIVE, the teacher, says Shaughnessy, wants to get closer to her students. But, unfortunately, the learner is seen as an “empty vessel.” Here, “Learning is thought of not so much as a constant and often troubling reformulation of the world so as to encompass new knowledge but as a steady flow of truth into a void.” Of course, this is extraordinarily damaging to the teacher-student relationship and there’s a greater void that’s maintained: the self, the teacher’s and the student’s, does not delve deeper into the profound human questions of our time — What? How? Where? When? Why?

But a sensitive teacher, upon realizing that students are not responding, baffled, says Shaughnessy, arrives at the third stage: SOUNDING THE DEPTHS. Here, the teacher not only turns to her students, but to himself as well, seeking a deeper understanding of his behavior. This a harrowing turn. It is deeply emotional because the teacher questions her motives, her intent, her reason for doing what she’s doing, from method to her purpose in the Education System.

After much frustration, existing in stages 1 and 2, Glenn Ford, working through stage 3, reaches his students in the classic Blackboard Jungle — and moves closer to Robin Williams’ representation of the teacher (stay with the clip, the pay-off is at the end):

Finally, stage 4, DIVING IN. This is the most taxing and the most dangerous because, as Shaughnessy suggests, the teacher must make a decision that “demands professional courage — the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and of his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence.” We see this at the end of the Blackboard Jungle as colleagues question Ford’s methods — but one volunteers to go down this road with him. The message is clear: DIVING IN can affect others in the community, as well.

But lurking close behind this image is still Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams is dismissed; in the interim, a boy commits suicide because he cannot do what he feels he needs to do. He is punished for having passion, for loving the arts, so he feels trapped, in a cell, which then doubles for the cell of the teacher and the claustrophobia students feel when they’re unable to pursue their imaginations. This is the message of Blackboard Jungle: stimulate the mind and the imagination will do the rest. Active use of the imagination can change a society because it changes people, one at a time. It’s infectious.

This is exhausting for the teacher. In other professions — medicine, the law, psychiatry — there are support groups for professionals. In the Education System, the teacher must seek solace on her own — in Montauk, perhaps, or an email to a colleague. There is no support, just more challenges, more obstacles, more demands — and we deny the emotional life of the teacher, supplanting it with regimentation, standardization, homogeneity. We, in fact, reject the notion that teachers have emotional lives, which means we reject the idea that students do too. We are comforted by looking at the student from the head up, not the whole person. We think we can teach by numbers. We forget that a teacher’s move from stage 1 to stage 4 is an emotional one. The repression of the teacher’s emotional needs suggests that education is not interested in educating the entire being, rather it is keen on stunting growth, evolution.

A teacher, as she enters the classroom to give it voice, needs students; this is an emotional journey towards mutual self-actualization that needs various forms of support — psychological and emotional, as well as professional, the art and the science of teaching. Institutionally, K-16, we reject the art, the sensual life of the teacher, which is why we’re in the state we’re in. In rejecting this side of the teacher’s life, we reject her students, too. Thus we educate by rejection, oppression and punishment.  Where are we going?

To teach, as I’ve said above, is to show; to show is not to indoctrinate, rather it’s to give information while also teaching methods by which to understand, analyze and question information. The aim of the teacher is to teach to think, to doubt, to ask questions. Don’t judge students by their answers, answers are not the truth. Students — and teachers — seek a truth that is relative. For this sensual classroom to blossom, the obstacles that currently exist that keep teachers from meaningful self-actualization have to be removed.

Impede the teacher, silence the students — and we have our world.

Is this really what we want?

The Miller Street School: “Today, an angel came into my life” –Part 4

Another challenge Shakirah must face is Marlin Nevens. Mr. Nevens was reading out loud to a class of fifth graders when I observed him. He was having a hard time with the fifth grade level reader. He read slowly and with difficulty. He was tripping over words, having to say them twice, sometimes three times. The class was sleepy and unfocused.

On the board behind Mr. Nevens were sentences he’d written. One caught my eye because it was a prompt meant to show students how to respond on a standardized test, which, in turn, becomes synonymous with essay writing. The directions said, “For every open ended response the first sentence should be: To begin with, Johanna Hurwitz, short story, ‘The Hot and Cold Summer,’ there are several values such as…” Several other sentences contained misspelled words and poor syntax. Mr. Nevens had been warned, given an unsatisfactory review and was receiving coaching from Maria Ortiz. But I wondered how he could overcome his own educational deficits. Mr. Nevens came into the Newark educational system through what is called the “alternative method”: he didn’t attend a graduate school of education; rather, after receiving his bachelor’s degree, he agreed to take courses towards his degree, receive coaching and mentoring, and after a trial period become licensed. In the meantime, he could teach.

After his reading lesson (there was no point to the lesson, he just read to the class), Mr. Nevens sat down with Maria Ortiz to discuss it.

“I want to work on skills,” Mr. Nevens said right away. “I need some material to work with.” He was nervous, perhaps because of my presence.

Ms. Ortiz asked, “What do you mean, material? This is your material, the kids. Come up with something.” Ortiz was visibly agitated.

“Oh,” he said leaning back in a chair usually occupied by a much smaller student. All three of us, Ms. Ortiz, Mr. Nevens and me, looked out of place, our bodies bulging over a small desk meant for 11 and 12 year olds.

“You’re asking me what am I going to be teaching? Oh.”

“Teach me something now,” said Ms. Ortiz leaning towards Mr. Nevens.

“I don’t know what you’re asking,” he said.

“What’s your forte, your strength – show it to me.”

“I don’t have one.”

Ms. Ortiz changed her tack. “What do you feel the most comfortable teaching?” she asked and paused.

“Anything,” Mr. Nevens said quickly, shrugged his shoulders and darted his eyes towards me, then grinned nervously trying to get the message across.

“Fine. Teach me one of those things. Tell me one lesson you’ve done that you were successful with.”
Mr. Nevens thought for a minute, then said, “I enjoy when we work on projects together.” And he smiled towards me again – he could teach anything.

“Okay. That’s extrapolating material from a text. Dr. Vila is going to show you how this is done,” said Maria looking at me and nodding, granting me access to the classroom. “He’s going to teach a lesson in your classroom tomorrow.” (In public schools and in colleges in NYC and New Jersey where I’ve taught, I’m usually a “doctor”; at Middlebury, where I teach now, I’m simply Professor, but students who know me for a bit simply call me by my first name.  Either option is open them.)

That was it, without warning I was going “in,” called off the bench to teach Mr. Nevens’ 5th graders and hopefully instruct him as well.

This was Maria Ortiz’s counterinsurgency plan. Maybe this is an answer: teachers from elite institutions contractually obligated to work in schools such as Miller Street, perhaps bringing along our students, too, committed to a national service for education – a pre-Teach for America program where elite and urban institutions collaborate. It’s never been done.

Maria Ortiz gleaned this from her studies: the progressive and populist counterinsurgency manuals of John Dewey and Paulo Freire’s notion that the oppressed can regain their humanity and overcome their condition as long as they are creative participants in their own growth and development. I went with Maria’s idea.

The next day, I gave students copies of Shel Silverstein’s poem, Where the Sidewalk Ends.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows back
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

I read the poem slowly, carefully, as I moved about the room, in-between tables, each with four to six children. They followed my voice with intent eyes on the poem. When I was done, I kept walking about for a few seconds and allowed silence to take over. Then I asked the students to circle words in the poem that popped out for them: “Sidewalk” and “ends,” “moon-bird” and “dark” and “winds and bends,” and of course “peppermint.” They also circled “children” and “they know” and “place.” I asked students to define one of these words for themselves, in writing, which they did without a problem. One student wrote that a “moon-bird is a bat,” and everyone laughed – and I let them chatter and joke a bit. Another student said a “moon-bird is a star flickering in the night.” After sharing definitions, I asked for three volunteers, and we re-read the poem, each student taking a stanza. They read fine, not missing a beat. I asked each table of students to talk among themselves and come up with one idea that came from the poem. In no time, five to seven minutes, kids were eager to share: “It’s about us,” said one group. “The streets are bad and your life can end,” said another. “No one listens to us.” “We have to be careful how we walk the streets.” “We know things.” “Things end so we have to do the right thing.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Nevens never got it. He was more interested in the steps I took, rather than how I may have known that the children would understand the poem, quite easily, though I was warned by Ms. Ortiz that it might prove difficult for them. He was insistent that I relate the time I allowed for each piece of the lesson, which took approximately 45 minutes in all, rather than ask me to explain the relationship between reading and writing and learning. Beginning in the fall of 2009, Mr. Nevens was moved down a couple of grades. He began the year in Tier 1. There’s little hope he’ll make it, though he has a big heart, great rapport with the kids, and they like him because he’s warm, and he always has an ear for whatever a student may need. But even with support, he has not been able to progress. The deficits in his education may be too much.

At the end of the class, Ana, the little girl with long black hair that had been smiling at me all week and that had asked whether I was going to be with them, handed me a piece of paper folded in half. She was all smiles looking up at me with big brown eyes as I opened the paper. She had drawn an angel with big wings and written, “Today, an angel came into my life. Thank you.” Tears came to my eyes, and I fought to hold them back. I placed a hand on her head and said, “Gracias, Ana. Muchisimas gracias.” She grinned and said, “You gonna be here all year? Are we going to do this some more?” I couldn’t move, the weight of the separation between our worlds was paralyzing because it seemed to me so simple to overcome.

“No, Ana,” I said softly. “Not all year. But I’ll be back, here and there, I hope.”