Thursday, April 2, 2020

Beyond the Hills of Nagoya

I've never understood how anyone could have a favorite poem.  It's like saying you have a favorite breath or a favorite blink.  Yes, on September 18, 1997, I blinked and that was my all-time favorite blink.  It's absurd.  Poems--at least for me anyway--are instances of passing thought or feeling.  They capture something, a perspective, a fleeting moment, a briefly entertained notion. You experience them and move on. Then, later, something in life happens and that former instance or perspective is triggered back into consciousness.

Lately Derek Mahon's poem The Snow Party has cued itself up in my thoughts. Mahon writes about the 17th century Japanese poet Basho attending a party where he sips tea and watches snow fall on the hills of Nagoya. But then he widens the lens from this genteel, civilized moment to remind us that this Snow Party occurred while on the other side of the planet Europeans were murdering each other with keen enthusiasm in a frenzy of sectarian violence and superstitious barbarism. This too was happening.

The Snow Party

Basho, coming To the city of Nagoya
Is asked to a snow party.
There is a tinkling of china
And tea into china;
There are introductions.

Then everyone crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.
Snow is falling on Nagoya
And farther south
On the tiles of Kyoto.

Eastward, beyond Irago
It is falling like leaves on a cold sea.
Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares.
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service Of barbarous kings;

But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

This poem came to mind on the day the Iraq War began.  A civilized snow had fallen quietly all that day as I listened to the news.  It's a poem about juxtapositions. Mahon manages to invoke the parataxis of Haiku without parroting the form. He lays two scenes against one another and asks how can something so beautiful exist in a world so beset with horrors.


For three weeks now I have been living a kind of paratactic existence.  I sit in my house reading, the shoots are just starting to grow in our garden. I write a letter to a friend, grade a student's earnest attempt to be earnest, then look up to notice the soft hair growing on my son's face as he attempts his first beard. Spring is coming round once more. The birds are skittering about my lawn with wisps of straw clutched in their beaks.  At four each afternoon, I make a pot of black tea for my wife and later we watch the news.
The juxtaposition of my reality with the reality seems so, well, unreal.  How can it be that thousands have died since dawn?

Friday, March 27, 2020

Relevance and Ripeness

I teach a couple of humanities courses in the liberal arts core at my institution, and (as I am often reminded) nobody comes to college for the core. They come for the major, or to play a sport and pick up a major along the way.

The core--in as much as students reflect on it at all--is simply something to be suffered through. It's not relevant or part of the value proposition of a college education.  Indeed, the nursing majors I teach sometimes refer to it as the BS part of their BSN.

Yet not a week passes when what I teach isn't somehow pushing itself obtrusively into the foreground. Just this week, for example, I sat in effectual quarantine in my basement recording a lecture on the impact of Newton's laws of motion on Western thought. These were ideas that he developed while at home in quarantine because a plague had closed down Cambridge University.

Later in the day, I was grading a student's response paper in which she illustrated one of Sir Francis Bacon's Idols of the Mind using an example of a false idea being spread on-line about Covid 19.  In her response, she mused how ironic it was that scientific illiteracy is as much of problem today as it had been in the 17th Century.

"Yes, isn't it?" I wrote in the on-line margin of her on-line paper.

All this is to say nothing of how earlier in the term (before the quarantine) my students could find contemporary analogs for the figures that populate the levels of Dante's Inferno: lying pols, falsifiers of fact, hypocrites, flatterers, hoarders, wasters...  Or that they could see how the techniques of image management suggested by Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier applied to the curated on-line personas of modern social media. Or the parallels between the tensions over immigration and the issues raised by Sepulveda and de Las Casas in the Valladolid debate, or...

I can't think of a text that I teach that doesn't speak to the human capacity for folly, shortsightedness, beauty, injustice, wonder, faith, tragedy or the heroic endurance of what Edgar in King Lear calls our going hence and coming hither.

"How am I ever going to use any this?" I'm often asked.  "How is this relevant?"

Relevant?  Good heavens.  Just look around.  The entirety of humanity is on full display in this moment.  All of it.

The ripeness is all.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Love, Learning and Going On-Line in a Time of Covid-19

“It was a lone voice in the middle of the ocean, but it was heard at great depth and great distance.”
― Gabriel García Márquez,  Love in the Time of Cholera

The news came--appropriately enough--via an email last Thursday.  A student in my Intro to Humanities course looked up from her phone and said, "Well, we're closing." The president's email announced that following Spring Break the university would close the campus for two weeks (though it looks now like we may be out much longer).  The email also instructed faculty to begin adapting their courses so that students could complete them without face-to-face instruction.

Anyone whose read this sucky old blog for a while knows that I have never been a fan of distance learning.  Indeed, I've often compared it to phone sex: better than nothing but not to be confused with the real thing.  That cynical jape rings a bit hollow now because the choice actually is between distance learning and nothing.

I guess we're all practicing safe sex these days.

Let me be clear.  My objections to teaching via a screen have never really been about technology.  Mostly, they're just selfish.  I prefer being with my students.  I need to sense their mood, body language and engagement to be an effective teacher.  And here's another confession: my performative skills in a classroom have covered up a helluva lot of pedagogical sins over the years.  I am not the most organized educator.  I cannot map every in-class moment and activity to clear- cut goals and objectives.  Rest assured, I have goals, but I like to leave room for some spontaneous inspiration (admittedly, this doesn't always work, but it's the most addictive drug in the world when it does).

It just makes no difference how well I plan a class. Until I've tried teaching anything before live students, I have no clue whether it will work.  And let's face it: effective on-line pedagogy has little room for the educator whose gifts favor the live, extemporaneous moment.

I'm also worried about a few of my students who may not fare well in an on-line format.  I am thinking of one in particular. She has just been scraping by, but I have formed a connection with her over two semesters.  She knows I believe in her and she has been hanging in there because she hasn't wanted to disappoint me.  Will she use this disruption as an excuse to fail now that I'm not present to her three days a week? 

There's another kid in my Humanities section that I'm thinking about, too.   His work has gotten slowly better over the semester.  He's not an academically-gifted student, but there's been real growth. Each time I have handed back his work in class (yes, I still use hard copies), I've made small, humorous comments like "Hey, this was pretty good. Um, more please!"  He's grinned and laughed, but I know he actually feels good about getting these comments and has been motivated to keep them coming. I know, I know.  I can put these comments on his on-line work, but it won't be quite the same. It won't be our shared, inside-joke moment.

In putting my courses on-line, I've tried to follow the advice that someone forwarded me from a prof who has a lot of experience teaching in this modality.  She recommends that we should all do a bad job of transferring our courses on line.  We should forget about synchronous on-line meetings, and we should not make students learn any new software.  She also recommended ditching due dates.  Just make a list of what you want students to do and let them do it at their own pace.

All good advice.

I might add one thing to this list.  We should think about reaching out to those students who may not handle this transition well.  I know that I plan to text-message a little teacherly-love and encouragement to one or two just to let them know I'm thinking about them.  Maybe hearing a lone, affirming voice will help to decrease the distance.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Arterial Residues


Last week, an outside consultant delivered to my colleagues and I a sobering assessment of the state liberal arts education. Somewhere during the 1990s, he explained, faculty governance systems ceased to act as a buffers against the total marketization of higher education. Today, these systems are increasingly the very mechanisms used to hasten this merger.  In other words, we have at last dropped any pretense of being driven by the intellectual and cultural pursuits of the faculty. We're all in the marketing department now.

There are various reasons for this: competition for declining student populations, political pressures, but also (and perhaps most importantly) the triumphant permeation of marketplace imperatives into nearly every aspect of American life. All of this is familiar stuff. Any number of writers have chronicled how an increasingly-powerful economic growth model has come to define higher education's value only in terms of its contribution to product development and market competitiveness.

What’s sobering was the suggestion that any possibility for reform has passed. Higher education in this country is now firmly in the hands of the corporatists, and they see education’s mission as turning out careerist leaders who can adapt themselves to the needs of organizations, manage their functions and internalize their rules. As Mark Edmundson has suggested, “Such leaders may question the "presiding powers but in the manner of a minor angel, inquiring into the ways of his more opulently-fledged brethren."

There's not even much push-back these days from those who once argued that education should prepare citizens to take part in and strengthen democratic society. You will search op-eds in vain looking for even a whisper of this idea. Old John Dewey's body lies a-moldering in the grave. And don't bother dredging up that hoariest of educational mission statements: knowing thyself.

The times have changed, although maybe not entirely.

In my Humanities courses, I often go over the late Raymond Williams’ model of cultural change. Williams noted that a culture at any given moment exhibits elements that he termed residual, dominant and emergent. The analogy I use when teaching this is a little neighborhood shopping district near campus. It once sat at the end of a streetcar line. In the days before home refrigeration,
people coming home from work would alight from the streetcar and swing by the small grocery store, the butcher’s shop or the tavern.  They would pick up the evening's meat, veggies and perhaps a bucket of beer.

Today, only a few miles up the road from campus, there are several big box stores (Super Target, Walmart and the like) where you can get everything you need.  And most students are probably sitting in my class with an Amazon app on their phones. These three ways of shopping exist simultaneously (at least the tavern's still there), but one mode is clearly residual, one dominant and one increasingly emergent.

The same situation exists in higher ed.  What Keats once called the “vale of soul-making” hasn't entirely disappeared. It’s just residual and tucked into the odd corners of education like that little down-at-the-heels shopping district near campus. It's still possible to shape one's soul in college. You might even acquire a personality or come to know yourself, but it will take work.  And higher education itself may not be of much help in this project. Even so, at most colleges and universities you can still find a few professors who are strangely passionate about their subjects and their students' learning. Every year, too, a few students continue to show up on campus a little lost and uncertain, but inarticulately hungry to enter the vale.

That they show up lacking any language to express these aspirations is hardly surprising. Very few of them have ever heard education discussed as anything but an expensive yet necessary process for enhancing their value as commodities in the labor market. By the time they're seniors, however, many of them get it. I continue to be amazed by how little it takes to engage students in a deeper conversation about life and what they aspire to become.

If I ask my seniors to evaluate and reflect upon their meaningful courses and experiences, almost all of the language of a cheap market transactions falls away. The courses they value are ones in which they discovered a passion, developed an interest or found out something new about themselves and their own soul. On the whole I'm enormously impressed with young people. A lot of their superficiality and cynicism is only skin deep. Underneath they're just as scared, intelligent, hopeful, and hungry as they've ever been.

But make no mistake, nourishing one's soul is no longer the dominant work of higher education. If it happens at all, it takes place in the residual back streets where traffic and pedestrians—to say nothing of streetcars—seldom roam.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Favorite Moment of the Week


I started reading a poem at the start of class in the senior capstone several years ago.  My initial reasons for doing this were personal and practical.  Personally, I would almost rather talk about poetry than just about anything else. In practical terms, no matter how often I remind students to be on time, there are still a few who walk in two to five minutes late every period, which means I have to rehash whatever I've just said or re-explain the group task that everyone has already begun.  Reading a poem just buys me a few minutes as I wait for the latecomers.

Over the past few years, however, I've found that the daily poem creates an interesting liminal space. It's neither official class time nor non-class time. It's funny, but when I started teaching three decades ago, I would approach the door of my classroom and hear a burble of youthful, laughing and energetic voices. Then I would walk in and that burble would drop to a hush. This always surprised me. I was only a few years older than my students, but I was still the professor.  I was the other I even wrote a poem about this hushing effect, one of whose lines was:

I am not old,
But I hear their voices change when I enter
And often misperceive the reasons
For their bright, inviting spills of laughter.


I would often try to break this awkward hush by chatting up the students.  I'd mention a ballgame or a film I'd seen over the weekend and ask if anyone else had seen it and what they thought of it.  I'd ask about something in the news. Then we'd start class.  Over the years I came to believe that these ex-cathedra conversations had a beneficial effect on classroom rapport. They allowed us all to see each other as just people.

Smartphones have pretty much destroyed this old "kind of class but kind of not-class" space.  My students today seldom glance up from their phones in the few minutes before a class begins (and even a few moments into it).  If I try to engage them with a broad question addressed to the room, they collectively don't respond. Their focus on the phone absolves them from any individual responsibility to make small talk. Someone else can answer.  They're busy right now.  The daily poem almost recreates what used to exist naturally: a bunch of people are in the same space with nothing to do. They just need to be with each other, to pass the time or--if all else fails--make an effort to talk with one another.

So at the top of the hour, I now ask the students in my senior capstone to put their phones away and I pull up a poem on the smart-board. Sometimes I say a few words about the poet, sometimes I don't.  Then I read the poem and and ask, "Well what do you guys think?  Did this one work for you or not?" And then we chat about the poem for a minute or two.  We point out lines we like or remark that we have often thought this same thing but hadn't ever put it quite like the poet did. Sometimes I'll point out some interesting thing about the language or meter, but not always.  By this time, my few latecomers have strolled in and we can commence the work of the day.

I sometimes think the liminality of the daily poem acts like a call-to-worship in a church service.  By being neither this nor that, it demarcates class time from the world beyond class.  For a few moments, we're off the clock together with something to share. Yesterday, for example, we shared Gerard Manly Hopkins' Pied Beauty, his prayer of gratitude for the variegated, particolored splendor of creation:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

I said a few things about Hopkins being a religious poet and his dying young and unrecognized only to be rediscovered decades later. I mentioned a few lines I admired and that how Hopkins said something was perhaps as interesting as what he said.  Let's face it: small pink dots lining the sides of German brown trout is just not the same sonic or aesthetic experience as rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swimThose lovely long "Os" and the  pop, pop, pop of "stipple upon" could not be more sensual or perfect praise of this world.  And as I was briefly losing myself in admiration of this line, I happened to catch a "leaner" in the room.

Sometimes when you are teaching, you'll have the odd sensation that someone's focus has shifted in intensity. It's not unlike the 'eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head' feeling you get when you just know you're being watched.  So I half-glanced up and saw a young woman on one side of the room staring at the poem on the smart-board with that curious, unself-conscious cocked head of wonder.  Her mouth had fallen slightly open and almost in spite of herself she had begun to lean forward with interest.

And that--right there--was my favorite moment of the week. It didn't exactly happen in class or out of it.  It wasn't part of the day's lesson plan and it sure as hell didn't map to any of my course objectives.  Truth be told, it won't even make her a better accountant, middle manager, or athletic trainer.

But, heaven help me, it's why I got into this line of work.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Monkeys, Love and Bear Meat

Yesterday in class we discussed Sherry Turkle's thesis that we are increasingly (and detrimentally) looking to technology rather than people to meet our emotional needs.  I started the class by going over the reigning theory of human motivation 70 years ago: the behaviorism of Pavlov and Skinner.

Essentially, they argued human behavior could be explained as the result of positive and negative inputs from the external environment.  If you want dogs to drool, get them to associate the reward of food with ringing a bell.  If you want people to do stuff...  Well, you see where this leads.

This model of engineering motivation became know as "operant conditioning," and it's still the go-to method for animal training. In the 1950s, however, it was seriously challenged by the work of Harry Harlow, who famously showed that baby rhesus monkeys preferred a terry cloth mother substitute to a cold, scary wire mother fitted with a nipple and a bottle filled with milk.  Sure, the baby monkey would go to the wire mother for sustenance, but it immediately ran back to the warm, cuddly but milk-less mother.  Harlow's findings suggested that positive rewards weren't the only thing that baby monkeys desired.

It wasn't all they needed either.  Later researchers found that adolescent children who had the equivalence of the "wire mother" experience in childhood had some significant developmental problems. They were more anxious, fearful, insecure and they had a hard time forming healthy adult relationships.  Out of this research and subsequent work by people like Mary Ainsworth, modern developmental psychologists produced "Attachment Theory," a view that human beings need to establish deep and enduring emotional bonds when they are young as part of healthy human development. Today attachment theory deals with a lot more than children.  It's been shown to apply adults as well.  The long-running Harvard Study of Adult Development even suggests that healthy, enduring, relationships correlate to such things as rates of heart disease and even life expectancy.

So I put the idea of operant conditioning on the board.  We also watched a video of Harlow's monkeys and Ainsworth's strange situation experiments. Then I put up Turkle's thesis that we are engaged in a massive, tech-assisted "flight from conversation" in our society.  "Okay," I said, "How do these ideas connect to one another?  And if they do connect, what are the implications?"

Then I shut up and got out of the way.  A helluva in-class discussion broke out.  Are the tech companies running a massive operant conditioning experiment on us?  After all, game developers are forever optimizing their content to keep us playing.  And our phones are forever beeping, buzzing and bleeping "Look at me!  Time to look at me now!"  Maybe, too, trying to get love from social media is like trying to get warmth and security from a wire monkey mother.  Maybe that's why heavy social media users report higher levels of anxiety and loneliness.

This discussion went on for a good while. Then I jumped in: "Okay, okay, let's consider the possibility that Turkle is wrong.  I mean, this isn't the first time a communication technology has changed society.  Writing, the printing press, radio, TV.  We've seen this before, right?  A new technology shows up and a bunch of hand-wringers start saying it's the end of the world. Let's lay out the best arguments against her."

And off they went.

This was my favorite kind of class. All the teaching is in the prep. I actually do very little once the class starts.  I just walk in, lay out a few big ideas and a question, and then stand back to let them have at it.  And just when they've all gotten comfortable with their consensus, I briefly reach in and give the pot a gentle stir.   Off they go again.

I wish I could do every class like this, but it just doesn't work that way.  It takes the right subject, the right students the right day, and the more importantly the right question.  And let me tell you, finding the right question isn't easy. But even when you do, there's no guarantee it will work next time you ask it.  Why?  Who knows?

I wrote a while back that some days in this job you eat the bear and some days the bear eats you.  Man, I gotta tell you.  There is nothing more delicious or addictive than bear meat.  I love it, but it's really, really hard to come by.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Friendship Resumes

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers wrote extensively about the place and purpose of friendship in a good human life.  Perhaps the most well-known taxonomy of friendship appears in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, where he defined three forms: those based on pleasure, those based on utility and those based on virtue.

The first two types are clearly transactions.  We are friends with people because they give us immediate enjoyment or there is some practical benefit or utility that we gain in return for maintaining friendly relations.  The team just gets along better, the work load is shared more equitably, the relationship might lead to a promotion or a letter of recommendation.

But what about Aristotle’s third category, friendships of virtue?  Are they also transactional?  And if not, why do we value them so highly?  Let's face it: there are people in our lives that we haven't seen or spoken to for years, yet we would immediately drop what we're doing and spend whatever it took to get to them if  they called this afternoon and said they needed us.  Okay, why is this?  Clearly there is no immediate benefit to such relationships.  Even so, we still see our friend's well-being as important to us as our own.  

This is the puzzle students and I wrestle with in "The Good Life," the senior core capstone.   What is the role and value of such friendships in a well-lived life?  To get students thinking about this subject, I have them create a friendship resume.  After all, when we create a resume for a job, we list all the skills and experiences that have developed us into someone suitable for a position.  But don’t friendships also provide us with equally important developmental experiences?  

So students list three important friendships in their lives and then wrestle into words why they value these relationships, what they mean to them and how they have shaped them. I also have them state one story or anecdote that best represents the value of a friend in their life. Finally, I ask them to look over all they have written and determine if there is some pattern or consistent value that emerges from their resume that answers the question of why we prize these relationships so highly?

Almost invariably the following phrase (or some variant of it) appears in student reflections: “I wouldn’t be the same person without these people in my life.”  This sentiment suggests that friends play an important and even crucial role in one another's personal development.  But how do friends develop us?  My tentative thesis is rather reductive: conversation.

It's a word whose etymology is telling.  In Middle English it meant "to live among" or "to be familiar with."  In the older Latin it literally meant "to turn aside with." Indeed, Plato's Phaedrus, his great panegyric to the effect of friends' souls upon each other, begins with the line "Let us turn aside here..."

Conversation in this sense is different than talk. Today, we talk all the time.  We yak, kibitz, grouse, post and tweet.  In the so-called "Information Age," we do little else.   But conversation by definition is an interactive process in which people receive as much as broadcast.  Watch two friends in deep conversation and they are tuned into each other, listening, mirroring back, questioning, reassuring, laughing, sometimes even touching, and occasionally just sitting silently in communion with one another.  

Conversation among friends is the creation of a mutual understanding. It’s the human form of a
Vulcan mind meld. It's how we learn the joyful and painful particulars of each other’s raw, unedited lives.  It’s through these conversations that our friends become more fully human and dimensional to us.  But--and here's the equally important point--we also become more fully human.

These conversations actually change our moral relationship to one another.  I may feel no special moral obligation to an abstraction.  After all, what do I owe a Democrat, a senior citizen, an immigrant?  These are abstract categories, not real people with detailed, dimensional, complex and unique lives.   But when I sit down to converse with a person, my sense empathy may be awakened.  I learn that this Democrat recently lost her mother after a long battle with cancer, or that the now-retired senior citizen was bullied as a child and because of that became a caring teacher, or that the immigrant came to this country in an arranged marriage and has struggled to learn English, find her voice and earn a degree.  

Our friends are those people in life with whom we have had those conversations that allowed us to see them and to be seen.  Our friends know us: the virtues, the shortcomings, the failures, the longings.  And despite this vulnerable nakedness of self, we still matter to one another.

I worry sometimes that my students are not conversing as much as they should.  Yes, they talk, post, transmit and tweet.  But are they conversing?  I fear there is an "opportunity cost" to our increased time with screens.  That said, when I read their friendship resumes, I take heart. The hunger for and appreciation of friends is still deeply woven into their lives.  

We may not see our friends as often as we like, and they may not provide anything of use, but we still need and desire them.  They make life good.


Beyond the Hills of Nagoya

I've never understood how anyone could have a favorite poem.  It's like saying you have a favorite breath or a favorite blink.  ...