Touching the Sturgeon

(The following essay, a meditation on why I believe we/I read, was first published by the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College in the 2011 issue of their annual publication, Writing from the Inside Out.)

Last night I traveled.  Buoyed on the words of author Susan Rogers as she read from a recent essay, I swam from the hardwood paneled room with its ornate plaster ceiling on the campus of Bard College to the vast, watery plane of the Hudson River sliding past the college barely half a mile away.  In an instant, I was floating beside Susan as she paddled south on the wide, rain-swollen river heading towards a New York Department of Environmental Conservation boat that had clearly caught something large. One of the men on board acknowledged her presence as she glided up to the boat, and floating to the back, she could see that what they had was a 6-foot Atlantic sturgeon hauled up from the river’s depths that they were tagging for study.  

In itself, a scene like this is, perhaps, memorable.  Most people will never be that close to an Atlantic sturgeon.  However, Susan’s description of the fish made it unforgettable:  “It is a dinosaur fish–it hasn’t changed in over 62 million years.”   She continued, describing its blue-black belly, its flat gaping mouth for filtering “dynamic mud”, how when touched or struck gently on its body its solidity, like a piece of wood, surprised her.  There on the river beside her, I saw this animal, belly up, mouth agape, all out of sorts. I know now, too, of it’s prized caviar, of the fishermen with names like stories who used to pull them out of the Hudson and sell them as “Albany Beef.”

But I learned something else that night, something beyond the fish, beyond myself.

Susan’s language, the rhythm of the sentences, the placement of this recollection immediately after she described the death of her mother, the way she reached out to touch the fish, gently, with a curiosity and compassion…all this made me realize why we read.

 

In his work I and Thou, Martin Buber presents his relational philosophy of dialogue.  At its heart are two distinct modes of engaging with the world. The first, the I – it mode, is mere experience of an object of observation or utility (the “it”) by a subject (the “I”). This mode is clinical and scientific, detached and observant–think of a virologist watching a petri dish. But in the second, the I-you mode, both objects enter into a transformative relationship.  The “I” engages the “you” as an entirety, the universe in and of itself.  Jane Goddall’s game-changing relationships/studies with chimps are a good example.  Buber classifies such a relationship through three elements, the third of which is the fact that “this one person [the I], without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of his activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (Buber, Education, p.96 f., in Friedman). Buber calls this engagement an “encounter” and grants that such encounters can happen between the I and any object, person … fish.

 

This sturgeon, this ancient, alien fish hauled up through the spell of language, all glassy-eyed, mouth gulping air. . . it was real to me.  Its solid, scaled, bony body, its position of helplessness… I was there, on that river, touching that sturgeon. But the room was not gone, my classmates seated around me remained, Susan’s voice was clear.  I existed in two places at once.

What should I say? That I felt compassion for this fish?  That I sensed its fear? That though a silent and strange species, I felt a connection?  None of this gets to the totality I felt, to the way my mind reached out and the world rushed in, numinous, swirling around me as the Hudson swirled around this fish.

Why do we read?  Because the ability of stories to transport the reader compels us.  Because the incantatory power of language sings us out of our slumbers and into the circle.  And perhaps, as for me, reading stories and encountering characters makes us better people, and holds a religious power over us.  Maybe it is all these things at once. I read because an ancient fish connects me to the world. I read because authors preach a universal gospel in a church that requires no faith but what I have in mankind.

(This piece began as an essay for Indu Chugani’s Inquiry into Essay workshop in July of 2010 at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking.  That week we read essays by Junot Diaz, Malcolm Gladwell, and a piece by Nam Le–All of which dealt with identity and how we perceive our selves.  At midweek, Indu gave us a prompt to create a “mini-essay” that focused on a dialogue between the texts.  I floundered through four hours of joyless writing that evening, pleased only, really, with the fact that I’d felt transported by a reading that evening by Susan Rogers.  The next day following the advice of two of my peer-revision classmates, I jettisoned a full third of the paper (the section that was most like an “academic essay”) and instead focused on the experience of hearing Susan Rogers read.  Their advice, as well as the advice of the editors of Bard’s “Writing from the Inside Out” periodical, where this piece was published, has helped me to let this piece be what it wants to be.  And while it fails to address the original prompt Indu gave us, it succeeds in giving voice to something I’ve felt for a long time.

It wasn’t easy.  I struggled with the third paragraph, trying to revise it, cajole it into getting it to do what I wanted, which was, essentially, to give the piece a semblance of “the essay,” as I had always known it…to meet the focus of the course as I saw it.  I know that writing has a mind of its own, that it is often best to let the piece be what it wants to be.  Truth be told, this piece always wanted to be about that night as simply one instance of many where I’ve felt the dark lenses drop away from my eyes and the world reveals itself.  My demand that the piece stand up to some external standard made revision far more about me than about this piece, and thus I’ve learned something important.  Of course, it also doesn’t seem much like the traditional essay I thought I’d write, and in that, I’m also surprised.  It’s as though I went out fishing for trout at a river I’ve known all my life and instead hauled in a sturgeon.  )

Blade Runner 2049: What to Watch Beforehand

Blade Runner

I just (finally) watched Blade Runner 2049. In the fall of 2017 I watched one of the “prequel” shorts that helped fill in the blanks between 2019 (setting for the original) and 2049.That’s here: https://motherboard.vice.com/…/the-blade-runner-2049-anime-… It addresses the key plot event of a massive blackout that sent the world into economic turmoil.

Image result for blade runner 2022 blackoutWhat I didn’t know until last night was that there are two other prequels, live-action shorts that develop two characters, Jared Leto’s Niandir Wallace, and the Nexus 8 Replicant Sapper, who we meet in the beginnning of BR2049. Here’s a link to those: https://motherboard.vice.com/…/heres-what-you-need-to-watch…

Image result for blade runner 2036 nexus dawn

Anyway, if you’re a fan of the original and haven’t seen the new one, it’s fantastic, picks up on a lot of the motifs from Ridley Scott’s original cinematic vision, and continues to ask the (now even more pertinent) questions of “what does it mean to be human” and “what pieces are integral to the creation the ‘self’?” (Turns out one answer to the latter question is related to storytelling and narrative…which reminds me of this quotation I have had hanging in my classroom for years: “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.” Indian Novelist, Vikram Chandra.” )

Ambition, Discovery: Writing, and Teaching, and Learning

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I’ve recently read more than my share of blog posts and articles on “Writing as Discovery.”  The sense is not new, of course, but the renewed (if that’s what it is) interest in writing towards these ends is refreshing.

As a teacher for almost 25 years, and an attendant at numerous conferences or workshops at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking, my pedagogical quiver contains scores of methods for engaging students in writing to learn or writing as discovery.  This is informal writing, and primary among the methods I use is freewriting as a means for writing to think, and writing to learn.  It’s all about writing as discovery and the methods all rely on a mindset of “just getting it down.”

I’ve read Paul Thomas’s post about the dangers of “writing recipes,” and I appreciate the description of his process.  I suppose one thing to admit if we’re going to dive into writing and discovery with our students is that we as teachers must also be writers and see ourselves in that light. Further, we need to immerse ourselves in the scholarship surrounding creativity and creative production.  Doing so will give us a familiarity with the creative act (and writing of all types is, certainly, creative) and, more important, the vocabulary with which to discuss the act.

My goal as a teacher is not to create writers.  By the time students get to me they have enough facility with language for me to call them writers (ie., people capable of writing).  But if I’m going to get them to see themselves as more than writers in a utilitarian sense, if I want them to believe they can use writing to affect deep thought and emotion in their audience, then I have to teach them how to think in “writerly ways.” (With this term I’m riffing off of Nigel Cross’s work in the UK and his promotion of Design as a discipline for study and the creation of “designerly minded” learners.)   That is, I have to help them develop the mindset and questioning techniques of writers.  Any teacher who seeks to accomplish such must see herself as a writer in that sense as well.  In that, she must be one of the “teachers of ambition” who not only “teach English” but who live the lives of writers:  watching, observing, and questioning the world in intensely curious ways…in  manners similar to scientists, but who report on their findings in ways utterly different than scientists.  (Though seriously, it’s freakishly frightening that our theories of the end of the universe are that it will expand into a cold, whimpering “emptiness” and T.S. Eliot writes more or less the same (“This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”).

So if it’s teaching writing as discovery, then I’m making sure I’m constantly doing PD (BARD!!!!!) in writing pedagogy. I’m reading books like Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing (a personal favorite by Ray Bradbury); any books on writing Pedagogy like Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power, Writing without Teachers, A Community of Writers; books on the creative process like A Whack on the Side of the Head, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (both by Roger von Oech), Thinkertoys, Five Star Mind, A Whole New Mind, and countless others.  And, of course, countless articles, etc.

To my teacher friends, perhaps it isn’t all that helpful, to say, go read all these things, go shift your weltanschauung.  But seriously, regardless of what you teach, if you’re not intensely curious about it, then you ought not teach it.  And students know this.  They know that the best teachers of a subject, the ones who go beyond the content and who craft a compelling story about why living a life that reads and writes the world through a mindset of science, math, words, etc…those are the teachers who transfer the sparks of passion, who offer learning as a gift and not a mere duty.  And that gift grows in the student, for they begin to discover their world expanding through mathematical patterns, scientific processes, musical harmonies, or words…”mere words.”

But maybe the best way to teach writing as discovery is to just share our own writing with students, to show them where we discovered things and how that happened.  To turn the classroom into a congregation worshiping at the miracle of creation, whatever form that creation may take.  For me, it is words, and not merely their consumption through reading books.  My classroom is a place to marvel at the utterly unique pairings, juxtapositions, and random wonders of words in all the varied forms and structures we have created.  It is a place to linger over those forms and structures, and to revel in the joy of new forms of expression we discover along the way towards a better understanding of who we are as human beings.

Advice to a Young Writer(?)

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Quotefancy-2806954-3840x2160We set writing goals for the semester and year in my classroom.  Many students set a goal of “organization” or “focus.”  These are natural goals for any writer, but what I often find is that they are masks for “I want to write more efficiently.  I want to write right the first time.”  Below is one such goal, and my response to it.

(Of course, I am not the only English teacher in the world, in all of time, who has sought to counsel such students, but this is my student, and this is my response…with strong thanks to my mentors:  Mark R., my 11th grade American Lit. teacher who introduced me to Freewriting and gave me his copy of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power; Bard College’s “Institute for Writing and Thinking” where I have grown more as a writer and teacher of writing than any place else; and to Mr. Peter Elbow himself, in whom I’ve found a mentor and kindred spirit.)

“My goal for the marking period is to organize my writing better. I need to focus on putting my thoughts out in a clear format that makes sense and is in order. This means leaving out pointless information and recognizing the sequence that the paragraphs should be in. I’m really interested in working on creative writing or writing poetry, and it would help if I was able to write in a succinct manner in my writing without having to redo entire sections. I can recognize a lot of mistakes in writing, but the sequence of ideas is not one. My thoughts are sporadic, so are my ideas in writing. So my goal is to try and organize my thoughts in my writing so that a can write something that makes sense.”  –E….

E…,

I admire this goal as it seeks to discover a means for writing that is “easier.”  I’ll reply with a quotation attributed to, among others, Ernest Hemingway, one of our great writers of the 20th century:  “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

If you want to get things done and just be done with them and not worry about the quality of your thoughts or the craft of your words, then writing is easier than bleeding.  Organizationally the trick is to come up with some key ideas (Claims you want to make) organize them around a central thesis, and organize their order from least important to greatest, or from closest to most distant, (or vice versa, depending upon the topic), or order them from self, to community, to world.  Or from oldest to newest.  There are even more ways…but those are the key ones.  See, it’s easy, just like I said.  😉  But remember, that doesn’t take the measure of the quality of your ideas or the quality of your writing.

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The hard truth, however, is that nothing great was ever written with ease.  It is always a struggle, or perhaps a learning to dance with our selves and who takes the lead.  Perhaps that’s cold comfort to you and your goal, but the upshot is this:  to get better at writing, you must write, and not for a grade, but you must write for yourself, to please yourself.  If your writing is boring to you it will be so to the reader.  To do this well, you must find your voice.  To find your voice, you must write.  And so you’ve circled back. But none of this is unfamiliar to any artist.  And writing is an art–you must find your own way through it.  Here is one way to conceive of the act….

Peter Elbow breaks the writing process into two parts, “Growing” and “Cooking.”  One does not grow ideas and concepts in direct and linear ways, in ways that are totally organized as they leave the pen.  It is an organic process, like the growth of a vine of peas.  It wanders, meanders, finds new pathways…but it is always rooted in one place to begin…though it may find new roots elsewhere.  Only when that growth has been given time and distance can it bear fruit which we then take and “cook” under the heat of editing, organization, and pruning back all our wandering meandering ideas.  This will allow us to strengthen our original idea (the vine) and promote more growth.

That’s a lot to get, but it’s important to understand writing, at least in my class, as a craft, not a science.  I’m teaching you to write for learning, not write to demonstrate learning.  In AP Human or AP Gov/Euro you’ll write a lot…but most of that is artless writing to demonstrate learning or simply to rehearse ideas and cement learning (as writing is a good way to do that).  That’s not what I’m about in this class, though I will teach you simple ways to go about it.

Right now you simply need to spend the time upfront to develop and grow your ideas, find your center(s) of gravity(ies) and then work toward pruning and editing and reorganizing.  

If beauty is not skin deep, then beautiful writing is also not superficial.  

 In the end, I will urge you to follow this goal you’ve set, but only with the understanding that growing ideas is painstaking, heartbreaking, joyous, amazing, time-consuming work that requires a full-bodied attention to the world and the works around you.  It is hard, but good, honest, rewarding work.  All humans deserve to devote the time and effort to these rewards.

Such I will grant you in this class.

Education as a Gift Economy

The Gift
I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators.  Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy.  I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education.  (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)

Merry Christmas…

Einstein Teaching

In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework.  I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.

I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore.  We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grow into good people.  Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”

As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”  Too often students do see study as a duty and only that.  It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light:  light for ourselves, but also light for the community.  Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.

You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift.  Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”  Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing.  The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  

The GiftHyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy.  Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation):  For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….”  Tell me that’s not teaching.  I don’t impart knowledge.  No.  It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.”  Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience.  Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing.  I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will.  And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.

Back to Einstein, then:  “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….”  It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.”  When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity.  But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”

I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift.  Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift.  But oh!  How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.