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.”

Preliminary Notes NCORE (Day 3-PM-2)

NCORE

NCORE

2:45-4:15 (Baltimore 5/Convention Center, Level 2)
75-Minute Concurrent Session

Social Justice Pedagogy Across the Curriculum

Curricular/Pedagogical Models

Lee Anne Bell, PhD, Professor, Director of the Education Program, Barnard College, Columbia University – New York, New York  lbell@barnard.edu

Glen David Kueker, PhD, Associate Professor, Political Science Department, DePauw University—Greencastle, Indiana gkuecker@depauw.edu

Kamakshi Murti, PhD, Professor of German, Emerita, Middlebury College – Middlebury, Vermont  kmurti@middlebury.edu

Rob Root, PhD, Associate Professor, Mathematics Department, Lafayette College—Easton, Pennsylvania robroot@lafayette.edu

Kathleen Skubikowski, PhD, Associate Professor of English, and Assistant Dean for Instruction, Middlebury College – Middlebury, Vermont   skubikow@middlebury.edu

Catharine Wright, Lecturer in Writing, Acting Associate Director of Writing, Middlebury College—Middlebury, Vermont  cwwright@middlebury.edu

Kennedy Mugo, Student, Political Science, Middlebury College

Intro

•    Kathy: 3rd time coming together, 2005-06, supported by Mellon Foundation; produce collection of essays, second meeting; third time NCRE 23
•    Premise: social just classrooms need socially just academies; faculty are more willing to take pedagogical risks; social justice ed is the responsibility of faculty across the curriculum
•    Social justice education must move beyond a few faculty; has to be thought of a shared endeavor across constituency
•    Institutions have been challenged before; 1970s, writing across the curriculum asked faculty to step out of comfort field; digital technology challenge that has transformed the classroom, committing to spread IT across disciplines
•    Many liberal arts institutions are challenged by developing social justice work
•    We’re being asked to question our courses, perspectives, etc; a call to re-examine our own assumptions, making ourselves objects of inquiry
•    Sharing personal histories and disciplines

Talk

•    (Kamakshi): deliberative dialog –enable people to talk about difficult subjects
•    involves reading and thinking together; how to address and take action
•    humanities teacher has a challenge to bring this forth
•    general framework: identify an issue that is of common concern: discover other people’s interests, group in clusters, research, interviewing citizens, recognize tensions, list actions and test; convene community forums
•    (Kueker): conflict analysis began early in career; 2000, involved in Ecuador as an activist, then drawn to academic questions and writing about social movements – lead to an intersection of activism and academic work; 2006, writing about human rights and mining; firewall between activist work and academic work, following letters of protest from mining company; created an organization, non-profit: what happens when activist work runs into conflict with private goals and needs? What do we talk about when we speak about a socially just institution?
•    (Root): loose working group of mathematicians working since 2006 making the connection btwn social justice and mathematics; at least 3 points of contact btwn mathematics and social justice: (1) mathematical theory of social interaction (evolutionary game theory) – how is it we behave in cooperative ways? How do we get to a society that is fair and socially just?  We all care about motive; (2) mathematics as a tool to delineate and understand and work for social justice, such as theories of voting – could we create a voting system that eliminates vote splitting? Wealth and income inequality, seeing the trends, along with scarce resources; (3) using mathematics to rest equitable treatment that insists on competition and self-reliance – we need to first understand what we deserve? – math as social justice
•    for instance, looking at sustainability; or looking, in stats,  at wealth distribution inequality, which has been going on for 30 years; debt and access to credit to use these to understand interest payments
•   (Catharine): slaughter and conquest in standard English, bell hooks; what do we do not to hear the sound of slaughter in students’ writings and in our own; we can vary assignments – citizen scholar; balance emotional and cognitive, personal and academic; using the language of the senses, from all parts of our being; we can learn the language of scholarship, but include our emotional side; studying and observing and taking in our feelings as we study; social justice writing balances reason and emotion; varied writing assignments – formal, informal; how do we validate an informal paper?;  we can also assign personal papers
•    any faculty can read and re-educate; we tend to teach writing as it was taught to us
•   (Bell): artists and teachers and undergraduate to teach about race and racism in the arts; notion of story when interviewing gatekeepers in higher ed (several hundred interviews); people often told stories to get across a point: how can we use stories to get at social justice?; model on a white board: starts with “counter storytelling community”(informed by critical race theory) – how do we challenge stock stories that are told in mainstream curriculum?; “concealed stories” are not hidden, but suppressed and provide a lens for critiquing stock stories; “resistance stories,” that are in our lore about people who have challenged racism and have much to learn from; “emerging transforming stories” – emerge from a historical and social grounding, they have roots that we need to understand and connect to our history and are transforming – all this (hopefully) lead to change or new stock stories; used to frame a course on student teaching – used to look at stock stories about “white privileged” students going into the city to teach; also used to think about curriculum being used in classrooms
•    (Mugo): perspective as poli sci major; braindrain: a better education is always sought elsewhere, not in Kenya; class examples (1) intro to poli philosophy – “learning about our history” – she didn’t look at Mugo; switched off immediately; (2) international political economy: all data from the American political view (Middlebury from one perspective); (3) economics – learned models, concluding that models have not worked in the past because they were based on western economy; African economic development is not a part of the discourse; point of view is created by dominant class; students are not armed to empower the oppressed people: what’s the use of education if the educated can helped the oppressed?  Let’s all fit into the white man’s model; has come to learn what it is to be ‘invisible’

The Last Human Freedoms and the University

The University did see me once. It was in 1985 and I had just finished my first of two Masters on my merry way to the PhD at NYU. I had just gotten off an airplane. I spent a couple of weeks in the UK visiting all the “hot spots” I learned about in my English studies — Oxford and Cambridge, where I thought of Hardy, Rye where I visited my dissertation topic, Henry James. My Master’s Thesis was on the “Structure of the Universe and Paradise Lost.” I was convinced that John Milton saw what physicists would later discover about our universe, so I conflated poetry, science and semiotics for Professor Anthony Low, one of the great Renaissance Scholars of our time.

I was eager to do as he and other professors were doing, namely teach what they loved — Literature. So when I was handed my roster of students, all freshman, at St. Peter’s College, in Jersey City, New Jersey, I couldn’t wait to share what I had learned about the Renaissance and Literature writ large.

But I was fooled. On the way to the class, the department chair at St. Peter’s put his arm around me and said, “Look, your mission is to try to get as many of these students to pass the end of term writing exam because without it, they can’t take any of the upper level courses they need in the majors. They need to learn how to write, and do it well.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Learning to write? What does that mean? I come from a generation of students that never took “freshman composition,” a course in the modern University used to help students learn to write in the academy. My generation of college students simply went into courses, whether these were in literature or the sciences; we came from our high schools prepared with all the skills required to research a subject (we used card catalogs then), cite sources, come up with a thesis and argue a point. Things had changed. But what really changed in the University is far beyond “freshman composition” — the entire nature of the University has changed.

My first class would not receive any literary wisdom; instead, we would concentrate on skills — but I wasn’t sure whether I could deliver. How do I write? I thought. Can I translate what I do into something practical — and in 14 weeks? I was very insecure but I knew that I couldn’t show that to students.

Thirty or so kids sat staring at me frozen before them. I did the next best thing — read out names, all of which, to their surprise, I read perfectly because they were all Latinos, all Spanish names. There was an immediate bond — we were not of the same color, but we shared a language. Then suddenly it occurred to me: I was hired because of my name, Héctor Vila, is a Spanish name. I was like my students — that’s what the chair of the department must have thought. I could relate to them. Inspire them to pass. But was inspiration sufficient?

I wasn’t hired because I went to NYU. I wasn’t hired because I just completed a thesis on John Milton and the science of the English Renaissance. I was hired because I’m Spanish. That was the only criteria. What else I knew was not essential, except that being a grad student at NYU determined a degree of intelligence, I suppose. Or is it simply that, as a grad student, I was a good soldier, someone who understood what it means to be “a student” who accepts the authority of the professor?

This was the beginning. The first story of how the University saw me — and it would see me like this for the rest of my career. At another school, years later, after I received my PhD and I was working towards tenure, another form of discipline that I’ll speak about later, I was trotted out every time the administration wanted to prove diversity. “You’re perfect for this,” I recall the chair of this department saying to me. “You’re white, articulate, you know what we know — and we can say you’re Hispanic, too.”

So I’ve lived on the boundaries behind the luxusious ivy, never mainstream.

I’ve learned that Education conflates two models: (1) the medieval Abbey, the authority at the center, the Abbot, and the accolades, working diligently and (especially) painfully at their craft in scriptoriums, the margins off center, but eventually retreating to cells to work on their own — it’s an efficient model that keeps everyone in line; and (2) the post-modern corporation meant to manufacture consent, as Chomsky would say, through illusion, subterfuge, manipulations. The bait and switch I experienced at St. Peter’s College is case in point.

The modern University, not unlike General Electric and Dupont and Ford Motor Company, is in the business of raising capital; this is the main task of any viable educational institution, to raise capital. Learning is at least in third or fourth place after research, usually comprised of raising funds from the US Government (defense) and corporations (pharmaceuticals, new technologies, and companies also in the business of defense), writing and publishing, by faculty, in obscure, idiosyncratic journals, and then comes teaching. And how good the teaching is depends on the luck of the drawer since faculty  are never trained in teaching. Teaching is never mentioned in graduate school. A new graduate, such as myself, is simply thrown into the classroom by virtue of having a degree. In my own case, I was thrown into an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom — and I didn’t even know such a “thing” existed. I learned by doing; and I learned by making a lot of mistakes.

At my first job, St. Peter’s College, the Jesuits had apparently figured out how to ensure their future be admitting the new generation of immigrants into their school. Only this generation couldn’t write Standard American English; some had trouble speaking it. And the system placed a very difficult essay exam at the end, a gatekeeper exam.

I decided right there and then not to teach writing, but rather, to teach how to take the test. I told the class that if I could have each and every student learn how to write a sentence — John ran to the store. — I could teach them how to turn this into a paragraph and, eventually, an essay. The structure of the simple sentence — subject + verb + object = an idea — can be used to create a paragraph, of the same structure, and an essay, also of the same structure. A complete formula students could understand. And it was a successful formula — all passed. Every year, for about 3 years when I was at St. Peter’s, just about all students, 90%, passed.

But I was left wondering what I had done? What I represented? What did the University represent that it placed us, students and teachers, in such a bind? I wasn’t teaching. I was merely an antidote to a bad situation, showing students survival skills, a way through a laborious essay exam. I wasn’t teaching them to write. As a representative of the system, I was teaching students how to negotiate the system, how to navigate through its many troubling dark holes.

In the famous book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl, a victim of Nazi concentration camps and from which the source of much of his teachings comes from, wonders,

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors — be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners’ reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstance?…

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (86)

The University has long given up these questions; these exist, if they do at all, on the margins of the institution. Long have we given up wondering about human liberty, proof is in the world we’ve created. Take a close look.

I wondered then and I wonder now whether the “last of the human freedoms” is still an opportunity for me. I know now that given the bleak production model of the modern University, the only thing I can offer, the only thing I can teach is how to navigate the disciplines in such a way as to ensure that students are able to choose an attitude because only then can one find one’s own way. But as I’ve said earlier, (here, too) I’m losing what has become a battle for the human heart.

It’s as if we’ve gone from teaching Literature and matters of the heart, say in my case, to teaching surviving an intense system, made more intense by the lack of material promise at the end. The modern University has become its own subject.  But it affords us an opportunity to question the idea of justice, the idea of learning, the idea of knowledge. Do students and faculty want to work that hard? The answer to this question will determine whether or not we have a viable future.

How institutions behave and how institutions affect our perception of our world and ourselves is probably one of the most profound reasons I stay “in the battle.” It’s the last and only remaining “field of study,” only because it is here where we can come to understand how we’ve polluted the world with ignominious actions. It is also the only means towards a re-investment in human liberty achievable by choosing one’s attitude towards the conditions of our world.

Second Guesses and Learning from Students

Just when I began to second guess myself, I received an email from one of my students, Pooja ji, who is working in India. Students energize me, give me purpose — it’s always been a truth in my life. I always say to students that ask why I do what I do that I learn from them, they teach me. If it was otherwise, what we do in a classroom wouldn’t work, not at all. In a classroom, I’m a learner too.  The day that ends, I end.

Pooja wrote to my class of Freshmen, and me . She urges all of us living lives on the boundary, living on the edges of Any Main Street, and from disparate parts of the world, to dig deeply, search and ask the hard questions.

“In my month here (India),” she writes, “I have questioned every minute.” She tells these new, young students with hope and confusion in their eyes — fearful, somewhat, but nevertheless looking to create lives that will not be defined by “quiet desperation” — that her experiences have put into question her beliefs. She tells my new students that “four years at Middlebury gives you a set of skills. Your true education begins after graduation.” And she’s speaking to me too, her old gray-haired prof, balding. She’s talking about us.

Of course, life is the greatest teacher — we know this, Pooja sees this, as do my new students; it compels us to face things we may not want to face. We grow by Being, doing. But I’m fascinated by the notion that 4 years at Middlebury College results in skills. Is this simply a choice of words written quickly, via email, while Pooja sat covered in flies, which she described quite well to me earlier in another note? Or is this all I did for Pooja, give her skills? Perhaps. Maybe that’s all I did. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s all I can do, skills work. I am a “teacher of writing,” after all, and not by choice (I totally self-trained for this part of my life, institutionally mandated; we are all institutionalized somehow), but rather, by circumstances, personal and professional — and by professional I mean that institutions and I have had differing opinions of who we each are, what they want from me.

But maybe it’s through skills work that we find each other. Skills work leads to life work? Does it? First we become acquainted through skills, and they lead us to each other, to matters of the heart, which is really where we need to work. I have always felt that leaving matters of the heart out of teaching and learning is negating the learning process. Doesn’t education mean learning about one’s self?

Pooja is one of those students who would learn and grow and create a world for herself despite any system, any orthodoxy. In 25 years of teaching, I can count students such as Pooja on my two hands — that’s it. Others need more or something else or they don’t even look at education as a journey towards an understanding of the self, an understanding of Being.

Pooja arrived at my doorstep with a sense of self, though she didn’t know it quite fully when she first walked on to the campus. Of her early days, Pooja writes,

During my first year at Middlebury, a friend I’d met only a few months before encouraged me to speak to my advisor. I entered my advisor’s office with the intention of deciding what my major would be. Instead, I sat in his office and cried for 15 minutes. He didn’t say anything. He let me cry. After I was done pouring out my emotions, we talked. I didn’t come out of his office with a clear plan for my academic life, but I came out understanding that it was all right to be vulnerable. I began to trust Middlebury as a community and as my home for four years.

I remember those first meetings where Pooja struggled with expectations and what she began to see as a burning desire to express herself, to mold her life, to write. She became a writer. And she designed her life immediately after graduation. She is creating her world, not the other way around, which is succumbing, as many do, to the elegant means of production afforded graduates of elite institutions (this, of course, following the economic downfall, is doubtful). Pooja, and others like her, have designed unorthodox paths, roads least traveled. Don’t we want this for all our students? How do skills work lead to this sense of self, so powerfully expressed?

I’m left wondering what, if anything, I did for Pooja? We have, I think, mutual respect and we’ve moved from a student-teacher relationship to friends. I worry about her living and working in Kanpur; she sees my anxieties over my current students.  And now, as her email points out, she is helping me teach and I accept her knowledge, her unique experience. But this way of being for me is not for all. And some might even wonder whether the role of the teacher is to move from “sage on the stage” to friend, collaborator, respectful colleague — a community of civilized, mutually respectful collaborators.

I always tell my students early on in a semester that if my job is done well, by the time we get to the end of the semester, there should be no need for me. I should be invisible, not there. I move towards invisibility. I think that this is hard to do, but I think that it’s the only way to teach because only when students take over a course, a subject, the course itself, have they arrived at a moment of confidence necessary to assert new ideas, theories, actions — to assert themselves on to the world and be themselves, articulating who they are, but more importantly, what kind of world they want.

I’m left wondering about invisibility.  As I write myself out of the equation, the University, too,  doesn’t see me either.  So as Pooja becomes, I whither?  Is this the life cycle of “the teacher”?

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

Delivered at the 11th International Conference of the EARLI

Special Interest Group on Writing, 11th to the 13th of June, 2008

Lund, Sweden*

Richard E. Miller in Writing at the End of the World (Pittsburgh, 2005) asserts that, “We live in the Information Age and all the information is telling us that whatever we have done, whatever we are doing, and whatever we plan to do will never have any lasting significance”. This is how our students and many teachers feel, bringing us back to the debate that began in the 1990’s about the nature and purpose of academic writing. On the one hand, we’ve had the school of thought that follows Michel Foucault’sThe Order of Discourse,”* most notably lead by David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University,” suggesting that the very syntax of college writers is defined by cultural and discursive commonplaces, and Kurt Spellmeyer’s “Self-Fashioning in Discourse: Foucault and the Freshman Writer,” where we are told that Foucault’s work “reminds us that learning is the process through which we deliberately fashion our lives—and that the outcome of the fashioning, this ‘assaying’ of ourselves, is always an open question”. And on the other hand, we find Nancy Sommers’s “Between the Drafts” where she realizes that only by getting out from beneath Foucault’s influence, and by implication the demands of academic conventions, can she begin to gain authority. In Sommers’s camp is also Nancy Welch and her often cited “Resisting the Faith”: only by returning to “University A,” after being repulsed by the learning process in “University B” where Foucault is required reading, to where “freewriting and stargazing” are encouraged because “we write and learn in an environment that is safe and supportive” is she able to compose.

A writer determines the ways culture is actually present in the very act of experiencing the writing process. Writers therefore come to understand how and why the academy needs them, says Miller, “constructing a more humane and hospitable life-world by providing the very thing the academy is most in need of at this time: a technology for producing and sustaining the hope that tomorrow will be better than today and that it is worth the effect to see to it that such hopes aren’t unfounded.”

Our job is to provoke—to enable ways to move between worlds and balance the incongruities we experience. The postmodern mission of academic writing is nothing less than to define the practice of the humanities.

In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy Calkins writes, “James Dickey’s definition of a writer—‘someone who is enormously taken by things anyone else would walk by’—is an important reminder to those of us who assume that we begin to write by brainstorming ideas, listing topics, and outlining possible directions for a piece. Writing does not begin with deskwork but with lifework.” Lifework begins with awareness. Awareness leads to knowledge. To think and see like a writer, someone who is sensitive about things around her, we have to slow down and realize we are part of a living web of interactions. Life is there, in the in-betweens, the tiny yet powerful transitions that spring from moment-to-moment, thought-to-thought, whether we’re stepping off a curve, ordering a pizza, or waiting in a theatre to see a movie. A writer captures the significance of these moments; she takes note of the vast world, its significance. Writing is discovery, unfolding. It is a way of giving life meaning. Nothing today is more essential than writing well. Writing helps us see, understand and realize ourselves.

Disorder and uncertainty are the guiding principles of our world today. It is the writer that sets our lands in order, giving us a vocabulary to define our condition. Perhaps at no other time in history, has the writer been so critical. Working towards achieving the writer’s sense of awareness is therefore a worthy cause and a useful discipline, whether we end up as professional writers or we write for ourselves in private journals. Writing assists our quest to find ourselves in the windstorm that life sometimes seems to be.

In sociology we learn to read, write and speak as sociologists—a process that studies the origin, development and structure of human societies and the behavior of individuals and groups; in mathematics we examine the world through the relationships among numbers, shapes and quantities using signs, proofs and symbols; in history we record and analyze past events, the development of people, and create accounts related to phenomena based on observation and investigation. Writing is no different; it too requires a particular approach—a discipline. Writing is an activity beyond merely setting down letters, words and symbols. Like sociology, mathematics and history, writing has aesthetic principles by which it adheres. The first is awareness. It is followed by exploration—that is, delving into inquiry. And finally there is voice, the determining of style, a way to speak what one uncovers and experiences in the act of setting down letters, words and symbols; it is the sound that comes from our inner most recesses. It takes time—and experience—to achieve voice. In between awareness, exploration, voice and style, a writer will create a routine to help her along—reading, studying, writing and revising. A writer knows how serious it is to set letters and words down for others to read because, in the act of writing, we see ourselves, we create an identity and uncover ourselves. Writing requires that we speak about what excites us, though, as Dickey says, others may walk by these same things. A writer notices—but we need courage to do so because, as we observe and consider, we are vulnerable. A writer learns that vulnerability is strength; it is where truth lives. Writing is a dialog with the world; it’s deeply personal and passionate.

Awareness—consciousness, responsiveness and attentiveness—activates inquiry, a formal investigation to determine the facts that exist in our struggle between sense and reason. Awareness is the first step to truth. And writing is a way to find a crossing towards truth, only that. Writing, we see ourselves. We imagine; we notice how we breathe—deeply, slowly so as not to miss a single thought; how our hands move gracefully about the keyboard, like Chopin at the piano. First, just letters, then entire words, and eventually a world emerges. We move forward and backwards across this world—deleting, revising, adding, scrutinizing. Trying to make something whole out of thin air, this is what we do. Stopping to think about how awesome this really is becomes so daunting that it’s easier to just keep going. We press on. We write on.

It is difficult to think like a writer and to see like one too when our experiences are defined by disunity. For those who work with writing, who teach how to read and write, as Richard E. Miller says in Writing at the End of the World, “there’s no escaping the sense that your labor is increasingly irrelevant”. This is because, Miller tells us, “so much of the critical and literary theory that has come to dominate the humanities over the past two decades is to see this writing as the defensive response of those who have recognized but cannot yet admit that the rise of technology and the emergence of the globalized economy have diminished the academy’s cultural significance”. If the cultural significance of the academy has indeed been reduced, then more so than ever, the academy needs writers—not the other way around. This is a great challenge: finding the relevance of writing means we are finding our bearing in the world. To write is to live.

To extend this a bit further, to help out a bit and perhaps to stimulate writing, thinking and dialog, Lucy Calkins is once again useful. She says that, “Writing allows us to hold our life in our hands and make something of it. We grow a piece of writing not only by jotting notes and writing rough drafts, but also by noticing, wondering, remembering, questioning, yearning”.

What a wonderful word, yearning—to yearn: to want something or somebody very much; to feel affection, tenderness, or compassion; to desire, long, crave, hanker, even ache.

What is the relationship between lifework and yearning? Or for that matter, what is the relationship between lifework and noticing, wondering, remembering and questioning?

Lifework is consciousness, a realization that collective intelligence exists in the multifaceted networks of historical ideas, in human and cyber systems, and in the symbolic expressions—the arts—that try to explain our condition. Writing is voicing an awareness based on what we glean from what we experience, what we read and study, what we fantasize. When our texts come together—collective intelligence—we see before us life itself, the pulse that binds us through symbols. This is the primary reason for going to school—to realize ourselves in a community of thinkers. Consciousness is also the understanding that creating a figurative language to give meaning to the connections between material reality and ideas is hard work, but it is essential, particularly today. This is where lifework begins—the state of being aware of what’s going on around us, sensitivity to issues, ideas and thoughts, feelings and the environment.

The seed for all patterns or systems of interconnecting lifelines is language. Language is subtle, powerful and yet vulnerable. There are of course different language types—music, painting, graphic arts and digital media, movies and film and photography, dance and theater, and so on. Nevertheless, lifework demands that we first become more closely associated with the critical language used in writing. A reasonable—and personal—understanding of this language is how we come to see ourselves in the continuum of writing, and ideas. Again, such as we do in other disciplines—sociology, mathematics, and history—we must establish a common language, a way to understand ourselves, a way to speak to one another. Understanding through our interpretation of a common language brings us together; it lets us know that we are all in this.

The figurative nature of language, and its relationships to material reality enable our imaginations to develop with it, breathe. It’s one of the most natural things to do, write.

One of my students, Amanda, wrote that, “the following words jump out at me: ingredients, combining (mixing) and creation. To me these words can be used to summarize what life is, because in effect life is a creation comprised of a great combination (mixture) of different intricately connected ingredients. Life is the most beautiful composition there is and depending on what one believes one is a story (creation) either written out before it began by some higher entity or written out as we as human beings live it. Life is in effect a composition and compositions are life.”

We can’t help but notice how this writer is immediately associating the notion of composition with “what life is.” We can also see how she is interested in the bind between “what one believes is … a story (creation) either written out before it began by some higher entity or written out as we … live it.” Already we see how writing works: it helps us discover ourselves, the way we think. In our harried lives, only when writing can we begin to understand how we see our world. Our instinct—as we see in this writer—is to find ourselves in what we read. We will recognize what we know; we will twist and tweak what we gather so that it fits our view of the world. Writing is a way to capitalize on our vision, order it.

Following this thinking, another student, Christy, writes:

It seems to me that composition has to do with the process of building something (writing, art, etc…) and its result(s) as a whole. Not only does it matter where the beginning, middle, and end steps in the creation come from, but it is important to think of where they are going as well. It is, as one of the definitions states, an “arrangement,” but not a random arrangement, one that has a pattern, or is organized in a certain matter where it is somehow evident that it has been mulled over in someone’s mind. This is to say that the “arrangement” is purposefully done a certain way because of the importance and significance of the composition to its creator. This, in my mind, relates to how to live life meaningfully, and is parallel to how to create a composition that is “successful”(in whatever way a person chooses to rate “success”).

In this case, Christy sees composition as a “process of building something” and “[t]his … relates to how to live life meaningfully, and is parallel to how to create a composition that is ‘successful.’” Here, again, the student sees composition as composing a life—as does Calkins. This is quite an assertion, a commitment the student writer is making to herself, to learning. She is going to define her education—not the other way around. We need this for a healthy and safe teaching and learning environment. Students like Amanda and Christy strengthen our institutions of higher education; they’re on their way to being citizens of the world.

In both cases, though the writing is not polished—it’s purposefully meant not to be so as to ensure that we are writing freely, unconstrained by the usual assessment-success paradigm that hovers over students when they write—we can see these students’ devotion, their sense of obligation.

The same writer as before, Amanda, in a reflection after her writing, tells us quite a bit:

This exercise has helped me see myself for who I am, a perfectionist. This is however not in every sense of the word. I do after all have a very messy room. I desire perfection in my personality. As impossible as it is I want everyone to like me so I try to be perfect for everyone. I have discovered that I am quite expressive in my writing, but I do think I need more help organizing my thoughts around certain issues. I have discovered also that I need to repeat things constantly in order to understand them well enough to write about them well. I need time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas, but I also need to be on a strict deadline in order to finish and minimize dabbling with ideas in the quest for perfection in my opening lines or paragraphs.

Quite extraordinary—from “composition” to “composing a life.” Without any prior knowledge of what she would put out for her colleagues in the class, though I’m sure she has had this conversation with herself before, Amanda discloses a lot about herself, suggesting to us what she needs to learn and, more importantly, reflects so as to know she is learning—“I need time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas,” she says. She is a typical student—a writer. She is like all of us, negotiating our needs versus our demands. Amanda then surveys the landscape: “In examining my writing now I seemed more focused now than I did earlier. I got straight to the point of what I wanted to say. Whether that is better writing I am not sure.” The uncertainty of the last line is, of course, the novice writer wondering about how to be in a world dictated by expectations determined by institutional forces; she has to perform, this we know by the rather terse rendering of her “need to be on a strict deadline to finish.” This is what makes writing—and all learning—in the academy difficult: semesters privilege the product over the process, giving students the sense that they’re being processed through an assembly line. In education, we are always working against time, an irony, of course, since learning takes time. Momentarily, while writing, we can provide a respite, a way to begin to learn how we learn, how we see ourselves. This only happens when we have time to think. The semester, and the course schedule that comprises the semester, work against true, meaningful exercises that enable learning about one’s place in our complex world. Writing, we create ways to combat this disabling constraint.

Finally, Amanda says, “Though we may struggle with language as a way of determining our identities, writing allows us to voice our opinions and express our views. Writing is important because it drives us to be the best that we can be. It transports us to places hidden in our minds. It allows us to go beyond reality and to conjure up endless possibilities.” It’s the idea of “endless possibilities” that will remain in Amanda’s mind—as it will in other students’. These are her last two words in an exercise that began by noticing what she could about “composition,” extracting from definitions that meant something to her about how the world is constructed.

Citing Michele Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” and David Bartholomae’s often cited essay, “Inventing the University,” Richard E. Miller says “that the problem basic writers face when they sit down to write in the academy is that the very syntax of their thoughts is defined by cultural and discursive commonplaces”. That is, writers face the daunting task of untangling themselves from the cultural-institutional binds that regulate identity—the structure of the semester is but only one.

We note this in Amanda, for instance: her insistence on needing a “strict deadline” is in conflict with her understanding about herself, that she needs “time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas.” And she realizes perhaps a greater bind, that writing “transports us to places hidden in our minds. It allows us to go beyond reality and to conjure up endless possibilities.” The “cultural and discursive commonplaces” Amanda defines place her in a quandary—and this will define much of her academic career, as it will for other students. In fact, we can arguably say that higher education is where one learns to negotiate the emotional and physical constraints placed on one’s body and on one’s desire.

This is lifework—the emotional and intellectual labor that defines discovery. The discipline of writing, we all realize, is about life itself; it is about making sense of how and what we see. It is natural to investigate ourselves; it is likewise impossible not to want to ponder the complexities that affect us.

In A Writer’s Reality, the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa says, “The process of writing is something in which a writer’s whole personality plays a part. A writer writes not only with his ideas but also with his instincts, with his intuition. The dark side of a personality also plays a very important role in the process of writing a book. The rational factor is something of which the writer is not totally aware”.

This is how we come to know the relationships that exists between our ideas and our instincts; where we come to find what is truly our own and what is culturally constructed. As we work with every word, every sentence, we recognize the significance of our syntax, the ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural elements in phrases and sentences. We see the sets of rules that belong to the English language, as well as the rules that belong to our culture, what informs us. We inhabit syntax to expose ourselves. We find logic to our being.

In French, the word for essay is essai—an attempt; one who writes essays is therefore an essayiste, one who attempts. To attempt is essayer. This is what Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) did in becoming perhaps the greatest essayiste we know. Montaigne popularized the essay; his effortless ability merges serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography. His massive volume Essais (literally “Attempts”) contains some of the most widely influential essays ever written. Montaigne’s goal is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. This is our model. When we write what some consider the dreaded college essay, we are in fact entering a historically situated occasion for writing. It is, as Montaigne realized, simply an “attempt” to make something understandable; any changes that have been brought forth to the form—and that may have sucked the lifeblood out of it—have been instituted by education’s need to adhere to a corporate structure.

I bring up the notion of the essai and the essayiste to reinforce the notion of attempt. Too often in writing courses we emphasize the finished product, the end. And too often students see writing in much the same way—to prove themselves against arbitrary benchmarks, to get done, finish, and move on to the next stage where they begin again with the same routine. The joy of discovery is taken out of the process. Predictably, we assign writing at the end of a reading, for instance; at the end of a particular section of a course; as a final exam; a final research project, complete with stale and fabricated topics. This takes spontaneity and instinct completely out of the attempt, of the essayiste’s heart and soul. In effect, we eliminate learning. Seldom do we assign writing to reinforce the need for meditation, to think about the ideas floating about our minds. We also seldom create writing situations where a writer can sit with the germ of an idea and grow it slowly, enabling her to see—take notice—how a singular idea may be the way into an entire semester’s work, even the curriculum itself and, I dare say, life. This is, of course, effort fraught with challenge; we are endeavoring, taking stabs at something or other.

Sharing our thoughts—as I have here, exploring, dwelling, inquiring—we realize that we are all immersed in our writing; that writing, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, has been and will continue to be an integral part of our journeys. We write emails, IM, notes in school; we write shopping lists, to do lists, and notes to friends; we write applications for jobs, grants, advancement of one sort or another. We are continuously writing. We are essayistes forever wanting to connect with another. It’s one of the most natural things we do, turn to writing in its varied forms and thus bond with others through our deepest, richest thoughts.

Examining our writing practice, we compose stills—images of our writing selves filled with life. The implications bring us closer to the significance of our thinking lives. We are naturally invited to explore and expand. Writing becomes a personal view from which a philosophy can emerge.

A teacher that writes, that understands how her writing emerges, will be forced to assess her teaching practice—it’s inevitable. Lucy Calkins suggests that, “when we teachers have known the power of writing for ourselves, when we’ve fashioned our own poems and stories and letters and memoirs, then we can look at the resistance in our students’ faces and clenched hands and know it is there not because writing is inherently a dreaded activity, but because writing has been taught in ways that make it so”(emphasis in original). This is true, particularly at the college level where writing is a performance, presumably a ticket towards upward mobility. Too often this methodology has nothing to do with the investigative, inquiry-based qualities of writing to find truth. Many of us focus on mistakes, what’s not said—and never look for and celebrate the uniqueness in the writer’s struggle to find voice. In fact, we never teach writing so as to help a student move closer to her voice. We do the opposite—move the student away from herself and towards our subjective reading of academic discourse, the rhetoric assumed in the disciplines and the business of schooling. In other words, rather then teaching writing as a vehicle for examining our interconnectedness, we teach writing in a way that departmentalizes students, bifurcates them, disperses them into the nooks and crannies of academia to fend for themselves. We are therefore working against the promises of a liberal arts education, teaching skills rather than thinking.

If writing doesn’t open us up, what’s the point?

Beginning with the stilted “academic essay,” the usual argument essay constructed for a teacher’s assigned topic, which pedagogically already suggests to students that what’s expected is an arbitrary understanding of excellence, not an educational term, but a business idea, guarantees that writers will not be committed to what we know to be the wonderful rewards that come from writing, what we glean from, say, Montaigne. As teachers of writing, it’s also deceitful to begin—and hammer away—at the academic essay. From Montaigne and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Harold Bloom, writers write because they’re looking for answers because they don’t know, because they need to see themselves think. This search dictates style, voice and an intimacy with grammar that stems from the writer’s deepest desires.

Writers write because they need to understand themselves amidst complexities. We are vulnerable beings—emotionally and psychologically. Writing helps us come to grips with our vulnerabilities and become stronger.