Solstice Reverie

Winter Solstice: More Ends and Beginnings of Things

Once again we arrive at the cusp,an in-between-ness I’m drawn to and have written about several times.

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The winter solstice is that wonderfully unsettling moment when we reach the shortest night of the year while winter itself still looms large and long, at least here in Vermont. It seems a particularly apt moment to touch upon an uneasy classroom topic, something fraught with tension: grading, perhaps. I leave the semester once again with a sense that grades–all and any–trivialize and even damage the deep learning adventure we have just experienced. No, I won’t go there today; I’ll let the solstice celebrations help me shake off bad feelings, and instead turn to a couple of points made by Harry Lewis in his “Excellence without a Soul” talk from a couple of weeks ago, and then, to excerpts from my students’ course-end narrative reflections to help me articulate beyond and in spite of grades what my students discover in climbing out of the stupor, the inertia they had fallen into in many formal learning situations–what happens when they become passionate learners in as well as out of our classrooms:

My paraphrasing of points Harry Lewis made:

People teach their subject rather than thinking holistically about what the bigger point is….
Our educational institutions are highly competitive environments which isolate us by promoting egoism over altruism, by valuing smartness over wisdom, expertise and specialization over breadth of understanding.

And the wonderful: “Kids are self-motivated and shouldn’t be treated like rats in a maze.”

Exactly.

And from my students’ final narrative reflections in which they retrace their journey through the seminar:

I think that the best way to thank you that I can come up with is to say that I will definitely take another creative writing class (next fall, I think) and that I’m considering giving myself a blog for my birthday, but I have to be sure that I will promise myself to write on it regularly, and that I will be able to think of something to write.

I have grown. I say that sincerely, without sarcasm, and with total confidence. I don’t think that I realized that I was growing during the semester, one rarely does, but after reviewing my work as a whole, I feel like I have made amazing progress from a girl who stumbled into this writing class to where I am today. I have grown to love the blog, and now have a better grasp on analyzing literature. My writing isn’t magnificently perfect, far from it, but I think that the difference between my first draft, and my final project attests to my growth.

After three and a half or so months of writing, of reading, of classes and workshops and blogging and journaling, of class dinners and discussions, of stress, of rough drafts and final drafts, I’ve learned a lot to say the least. But what I’ve learned the most about is myself, both as a person and as a writer.

To be honest, I’ve known for a while that I was a pretty decent writer. It hit me in the tenth grade when my teachers would hand back my essays and assignments with the words “lovely writing” and “eloquent” scrawled across the tops of the papers in hot red ink. I’m a natural observer so describing my surroundings, describing anything but myself has always been easy for me and in that area I have excelled. I didn’t expect to be challenged so deeply by this class and for the way I think about writing to change so much. The first thing I learned was that I could no longer get away with writing about my surroundings or writing about my childhood, a thing of the past quite distant from the person I am now. I had to learn to dig deep, deep into the writing and deep into myself. Writing isn’t as easy anymore and I’m not always as confident in my writing now, but when I write something good, something with meaning, I know it. I feel it.

It’s over. But it’s not finished. Because of this class, I notice things now. Words, people, images, sounds, anything. Ordinary things become extraordinary and I feel the need to write them down, to record them so I don’t forget because I may need them in the future. I don’t know if [my blog] will continue on, but the thought of simply erasing it from the internet, all the work and stress and agony of it, seems a rather depressing thought.

In conclusion, I’m supposed to assign myself a grade, something that seems so foreign and distant to this course, something small and insignificant.

This course has been so valuable to me because it has changed me. I’m going to be a different reader and a different writer and a different person for the rest of my life now. That’s scary and exciting. I’ve still got plenty of growing and changing to do, but now, with the tools I have and the knowledge of the writing I am capable of, I’m looking forward to that growth and change.

This has been the most difficult writing workshop that I have ever taken, not because there was anything about it that was intrinsically harder, but because everything about it was uncomfortable. You pushed us in five-thousand different directions all at once.

When we discussed the grading rubric for this class I was very concerned about the fact that so much of our grade is based on growth, but as I’ve gone through the final unit of this class, discussed my work with the members of my evaluation group, and written this letter to you I have truly seen my growth in tangible ways. Discovering my growth has been much like the process of commenting on the work that I read both by published authors and on other students’ blogs. It’s only as I begin to articulate my thoughts that I really know what I am trying to say. It is only in trying to articulate my life experiences that I feel as if I am starting to understand the different facets of my own identity.

In talking about the beginning, I can only think about the end. On the final day of class, we all sat in a circle as we always do. To an outsider, it would it would have seemed a lot like the first day of class, but for me it was so different. The first time fifteen of us sat in Coltrane Lounge you had us write a story in five minutes and read it to the class. That moment was my first streak of actual panic since I had arrived at college. Even watching my parents drive away and leave me in a place I barely knew didn’t make my heart pound faster than having to read something so raw and, well, originally mine, in front of a whole room of people. But on Thursday, December 6th I could not wait to be called on to read my paragraph, to share what I had written, despite whether I thought it was good or not. I think this fact alone is the greatest testament to my growth over the past semester.

The most important part of multi- media, in my opinion was the constant blogging. All of a sudden, days were planned, or at least mine were, to incorporate time to sit down and write, to sit down and reflect. At first this was really hard. The blog was swarmed with sarcastic and helpless posts on how there was nothing to post about, but soon everyone seemed to get “it.” For me, blogging was an extension of my voice that I didn’t express during class. Every comment was something I couldn’t have thought of on the spot, and I really appreciated having the forum to prove that I really do have something to say if I’m given time to just analyze and ponder. I also think that this constant out of class interaction between all of the students made us a lot closer, and that, of course, I really appreciate. It is, in fact, on the blog that I made quite a big personal breakthrough when I posted a poem. Although it wasn’t as personal as a lot of other pieces I could have posted, it was still something I wrote outside of class and voluntarily shared.

So in attempting to evaluate myself, I would have to notice the changes that I have undergone. I no longer think “normal”; I think in words and phrases, in perceived eloquence and journalistic story ambitions. I’ve entered into my own past in new ways that I would have never had considered before. While writing is a necessary element within this class, for me, it’s the changes in motivation, perception, and identity that really are valuable. So, whatever my collection of writing depicts on a written level, I don’t really care all that much about. It’s a transition collection at best, a void to be filled with time. I’ve definitely made my mistakes, had my flaws but so has everyone else. I would like to end this evaluation just at that. Grades really can’t factor into my change in self and paradigm. This then, is my real evaluation, the one that really matters to me. I’m proud of what I am, where I’ve gone, and what I’ve become. Everything else is secondary.

tension wintermagic

What a privilege it has been to be a small part of my students’ journey.

Happy Solstice. Here’s to the beauty of in-between-ness. To reflection and to passionate learning.

Slowing it Down as the Semester Speeds to a Close

“When someone is trying to make something that doesn’t exist yet, for which there is no clear template, it’s going to look unfamiliar, and it’s likely to arrive with struggle, uncertainty, and a quality of raggedness. What makes things feel polished or “finished” is very often their adherence to familiar codes. The new arrives with its edges less charted; it tends less ‘to click the lid of a well-made box’ than to jangle or vibrate or sigh. Or even to provoke or irritate, as it presents itself with opacity rather than transparency.” Mark Doty, Preface to Legitimate Dangers, American Poets of the New Century

We’re back, barely, and briefly, from Thanksgiving break, which marked the first trip home for many first-years.
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It’s a wild time now as students scramble to complete their work for the semester and try to get into spring classes. The first-years have had to watch our on-line registration system for days as the upper-level students preceded them in the course selection process. It has been agonizing. Every day the numbers in their favored choices have dwindled, and Friday morning, many were disappointed when at last, they were able to register. My phone has been ringing, my email box swelling. Students want to take creative writing and they can’t get into the class. My waitlist is longer than the class roster. And while I am delighted to see so many seeking creative spaces in their course line-up, I am dismayed that our institutions of higher learning place such little value on creativity-centered courses except for majors in the arts. If a student has 36 courses to take over the four years of college, how many of them are creative-intensive? And yet, what could be more important than building their ability to think and act creatively?

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It’s got me thinking–of Ken Robinson’s contention that schools are killing creativity, of Vera John Steiner’s examination of the role of collaboration in creativity (ah, here’s where schools could and should play a role, with our built-in arenas for collaboration), of Maxine Greene’s urging, of Dewey’s urging ( “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of the imagination.” from The Quest for Certainty) and of James Paul Gee’s emphatic argument “that people learn best when their learning is part of a highly motivated engagement with social practices which they value.” (p. 77 Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling). Heck, it’s got me thinking about what many of my blogging buddies write about so often: our deep need for creativity, and the reality–a lack of creative spaces and practices in higher ed because, at least in part, these spaces invite uncertainty, risk, and Doty’s “raggedness.”

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Mostly, of course, it’s got me thinking of the journey of this course–nearly done– and how Mark Doty’s quotation about poets could describe this class. I think of how this group of students has come together to urge one another on, to encourage one another, to collaborate, to celebrate. Just as the course ends, they are oozing creativity, cracking open their voices and subject matter, messing around with the tools of twenty-first-century writers, as they engage with ideas, events and realities of our times, of their times. Their ongoing narrative reflections reveal that they are deeply immersed in Thomas Mann’s “serious play” of art and finding the deep rewards of creation: see Sarah’s inventive exploration of her thoughts on writing, for instance. They are confronting, too, what it means to be emerging adults, between childhood home and adult home, a reality they felt acutely upon going home for the first time last week, in posts such as Home? and the wry, moving Coming Home. This self-motivated slow-blogging (I’ve just told them to try it out, think about what they want to engage people in discussion about, without prescribing for them number or focus of posts) is pushing them to take responsibility for “what it is they believe and why they believe what they believe” (from yesterday’s lecture by former Harvard Dean, Harry Lewis, Excellence Without a Soul: Does Higher Education Have a Future?) They are loosening up, undoing the shackles of the grade-oriented grind, noodling around a bit, becoming increasingly playful, and open and THEMSELVES in posts such as Love is Monkey and Home: A Five-Paragraph Essay.

That so many students are lining up to take creative writing–and my section with its extra two-hour evening workshop to boot–tells me that we need to take our students’ creative development far more seriously than we do. The emails I have received from students trying to find a way into the course emphasize their need to explore their creative sides, as in this excerpt:

“This past semester, all of my writings in every class were analytical and dry. I found myself yearning for something more creative, something I could really attach and devote myself to.”

Indeed.

flight

In slowing down by moving more deeply into reflection, connection and creativity , my students have gotten in touch with parts of themselves that they haven’t seen in years while coming out of themselves to examine the world around them within the contact zones of the classroom community and of the provocative readings from John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay. Harry Lewis said something else in his talk along these lines that stayed with me: “Everybody should read books that keep them up at night.” Yes. And through reading one another’s thoughts about our reading and about life in general, we experience what de Certeau describes:

“the activity of reading has…all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance…words become the outlet or product of silent histories. The readable text transforms itself into the memorable: Barthes reads Proust in Stendhal’s text; the reader reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news. The thin film of writing becomes a movement of strata, a play of spaces…This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment…” (p. xxi The Practice of Everyday Life)

It’s got me thinking, too, about Laura’s recent post in which she wrestles with getting out of her comfort zone of genre and media:

“And although from a technical standpoint, I’m comfortable with video, audio and images, from an artistic standpoint, I feel like a complete dolt.”

And yet in the very pushing of herself into new creative directions, while vulnerable and terrified, perhaps, she finds herself energized, excited, “gung ho,” as I did when I made my foray into text-image storytelling this summer and every time I post a new photo. I have no training in photography, and all of my education tells me that I have no right to claim ownership of arenas outside those of trained expertise. And, yes, the results are pretty ragged but no less serious and revelatory for that.

This is what learning is about, this is what we need to be doing–not teaching undergraduates (most of whom will not go on to become academics, after all) to become ever narrower in viewpoint and expertise within silo-ed disciplines and arcane discourse modes, but to become expansive and worldly and deeply in touch with their creative and critical selves as they tackle the problems that face our world and articulate deep thinking clearly across disciplines. We need them to transcend disciplines, even. Look at this example of a “video poem” by a student working with a former student of mine on a Global Learning semester trip to Morocco. Wow…why aren’t these kinds of practices–as well as the traditional read-and-analyze practices– at the heart of our classrooms?

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We need more interdisciplinary creative courses in our higher education institutions, open to all students and not just majors. A little creative space goes a long way to bringing about meaningful reflection, action & interaction, “getting students to use their writing not just as a tool for making arguments, but also as a lens for exploring complexity and a vehicle for arriving at nuanced understandings of a lived reality that is inescapably characterized by ambiguities, shades of meaning, contradictions and gaps.” (Richard Miller, Writing At the End of the World, p.196-7)

And so on Monday, I will write more emails to those students seeking creative courses, urging them to let the school know how hard it is to be a science or social sciences major and get a place in a creative writing or other “creative” course, and how crucial it is to do just that. I’ll move into re-thinking my January term and spring semester courses with this in mind, too, and hope that I can continue to help students find contact with messy, vibrant, challenging spaces of creativity.