So This Is What It’s Like… Sort Of…

With a less than a week left of the Motley Group reading of Joyce’s Dubliners, I am lingering a bit too long, I realize, mid-collection, thinking about what I’ve read, how the stories talk to one another, undercut or intensify each another. I get pulled out of the book altogether for a few days at a stretch by the other calls on my time.  I have to get going here…onward into “Clay” and “A Painful Case” today. I might even have to set a reading schedule to make sure I have enough time to hang out in “The Dead.”  I can’t remember when I have ever read a collection this slowly, with breaks, and rereads, and trips out to my fellow readers’ blogs and to this site.  And I know I have not walked down the long driveway in search of the mail with such anticipation in a long long time.


This is as close as I have ever come to what I asked of my students and their blogging back in my teaching days. Yes I blogged with them, but never on equal terms, at best as guide. In fact I stayed off our class blogs for the most part, posting on my own blog in meta-reflection so as to keep their conversation open, playful and free between peers instead of performance for the teacher, something I’ve written about many times over the years here, including the final paragraph of one of those long-long posts of mine from 2005 (with lots of broken links):

“And it is the Motherblog that keeps them linked within a community–they venture back and forth onto one another’s blogs, taking comfort in their peers’ experiences, pushing one another, and learning from one another. And I’m rarely on the blog at all. Isn’t this what we’re after in a liberal arts education?  The students naturally, on their own, gravitate towards the learning ecology.  I’m keeping these second-wave bloggers in mind as my young first-years wonder aloud why we’re doing this public blogging thing.  I want them to read the Blogging-the-World blog, and I want them to look down the road at where they might be in two years.  If I teach them the grammar of the blog well, and they take to it, they can use the medium (or whatever other tool will be in play by then) to make their learning real, active, and worth crowing about.”

as if

I’m realizing that this Motley reading experience is as close as I’ve ever come to being absolutely inside classroom blogging–as a reciprocal apprentice.  I see the personalities come into play–who likes posterous, who their own blog, Flickr, postcards.  Who dropped out, never started, is still thinking about starting, is on the fence about continuing, is doing her own thing with responses.  Absolutely fascinating.  I’m learning more about my own inclinations as a reader as I hear Lanny’s puzzlement over the postcard I sent him, and how the image is linked in any way to the reading experience. In learning about how the others are approaching and responding to the stories, I think more deeply about my own readings, my own way of reading.  I really don’t think I did that enough as a teacher.  I see now how much I continued to dominate my classes even when I tried my best not to, even though I believed that students would learn how to think and communicate if they had to rely on one another as  much as on me. This experience almost has me hankering over another go in the classroom.  Almost.

Something else has me stumbling over my departure from the classroom. My old student, now my good friend and teacher, Stephanie Saldana, has been visiting for the past couple of days as she tears about the country on her first book tour.  Yesterday she gave a splendid, moving reading at the college. Four former students were in the audience: three still at the college and another, Stephanie’s best friend here fifteen years ago, another gifted writer, who drove over from Maine.  Stephanie read to an audience made up of townspeople, students and her former professors–a reading that showed her big heart as well as her considerable intellect, a reading that allowed us to glimpse her struggle with a broken world from the vantage point of living in the Middle East.  I thought, how brave, to come back here where you were a star poet/scholar and read from a book so human, so real, so true.  Later, a young Palestinian remarked to me that this was the first lecture/reading about the Middle East he’d been to here that hadn’t been dissecting, theorizing, and/or intellectualizing the trauma.  There was no sense of the personal, the lived in those other lectures and readings as though problems could be understood and solved purely from knowing enough. Stephanie’s reading and discussion gave him the space for his own story.  There it was again, the heart, the heart.  Later that evening, my two old students and another grad from that time sat on the floor of my livingroom and shared how they felt that their undergraduate classes had been far too much about the intellect.  Where was life in the classroom?  How did community outside the school have anything at all to do with what was going on in the classroom?  Where were the hearts of their teachers?

If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?  For a moment, I wanted another chance…but no, I am getting another chance…this way: with Motley readers, with my students turned teachers, with my messy work with storytelling in communities (ALL about heart), with my fumblings with camera.

It’s funny how I’m coming across this reminder repeatedly this week.  This morning,  I opened T.S. Eliot’s essay on Dante to find:

“In my own experience of the appreciation of poetry I have always found that the less I knew about a poet and his work, before I began to read it, the better.  A quotation, a critical remark, an enthusiastic essay may well be the accident that sets one to reading a particular author; but an elaborate preparation of historical and biographical knowledge has always been to me a barrier.  I am not defending poor scholarship…At least, it is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.”  (“Dante” 1929 Essay p. 205 in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot)

That’s what I so like about writing and receiving postcards as well as posts–they feel like little bursts of felt response–by readers who love to read and love to feel the pen on a card, having to move within the confines of that small white square, and caring enough to take the time to find a postcard, a stamp, go to the post office after engaging with the text.  Bound together by a love of reading, the freedom to come and go as we wish, the playfulness of responding however we like, and, for me, a commitment to speaking from the heart as well as head and to stick with it even if I don’t have time, love all the stories, or feel I have anything useful to say.  You just never know when you’ll stumble upon the new, or touch someone, or learn something you thought you already knew.

Alan's Mount Fujiaraby



5 Responses

  1. “If I could do it all over…I would have been a more radical teacher than I was, and isn’t it too bad that I have to say that teaching from the heart in a liberal arts college is radical?”

    That’s the way it is, isn’t it, looking backward, not radical enough? I’ve got the same sort of feeling and not just about teaching.

    I still don’t get, however, why you so want the “going for coffee because we like each others’ company” sort of conversations to happen inside courses. What you want seems to require no hierarchy. Courses have some, no matter how hard we try to ignore it. What about some sort of inter generational peer relationship outside a course? Even a club is probably too formal.

    For my class last fall, some of what you had done with your motherblog did serve as a model – your sort of approach, my content (though this was a course on designing for change, not econ). Of the 17 students only one is continuing with his blog and he had his before the class started. Some really didn’t like doing it, so their stopping is no surprise. But a few seemed to get something from it. So it is still a bit of a mystery, though it is evident that the hold we seem to have is very fragile indeed.

  2. Lanny,

    If you thought I meant be palsy with our students, then I didn’t write clearly. I’m not talking at all about “going for coffee because we like each other’s company” approach. Indeed, that’s one of the things we should not do. University is one of the few life experiences that is intentionally about coming into direct contact with views other than your own. The more the better. But if we approach the coming together to put those views into relief, into juxtaposition with one another as simply an intellectual exercise then we’ve missed a huge opportunity to move past information to wisdom. And wisdom takes heart as well as mind, sometimes in spite of mind.

    What I’m talking about is letting students see our confusion, our questions, our uncertainty, our joy and humor and humanity. and having to engage with each other as people, not just classmates. It’s about weaving lectures and discussions and presentations and projects and exercises together with the threads of who we are, and learning different ways of speaking to one another, different levels of discourse, not just the academic. I wish I had taken more time in class to ask my students to think about how the stories we read related to their lives. I wish I had asked them what they really thought about the stories as well as what they were learning about writing from them. I wish they had been asked to push those responses up against one another as well as the more formal dissections of text. I wish I had done far more with my students in the local community and asked them to come off their academic high horses to discover their passions.

  3. Barbara – in this case, I believe it was my writing that was unclear. I have a handful of very close colleagues on campus. I go for coffee with them. Our discussions are open and enlightening. There is clear trust among us. Sometimes we disagree. But we enjoy the conversations and want the next one. We are pals but we are serious in what we talk about.

    I do have a question for you based on your response. What would you do if some students were resistant to your approach, indicating a preference for authority and a sure direction? As you say in your post that what you’d want to do would be outside the norm for the students, shouldn’t that be anticipated? The high horse may be an unconscious affectation, but couldn’t it also be a form of self-protection? What then?

    One last thing about me. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I appear purely to making intellectual argument – playing the devil’s advocate so to speak. I do want to make it clear that what I asked in the previous paragraph were not idle questions. I had a real struggle with those issues last semester.

  4. Ah, I see about the coffee culture, Lanny–indeed it would be ideal if we could foster a bit of that in our classrooms. What distinguishes the classroom from other kinds of gatherings, however, is the reason for being there. When we get together with friends over coffee, we are making time for the joy of that contact. Students come to our classes for all sorts of reasons–sometimes joy has very little to do with it, especially if we teach in a departmental system with required classes. I’ve blogged before about my daughter’s experience at Hampshire where she has to come up with her requirements with her board of advisors, and those (both courses and advisors) can shift as her interests shift. Hers has been a remarkable journey through college (and she’s only a junior).

    I do agree with you that it is difficult to shake students from their expectations of the classroom. They often resist the kind of active, engaged, collaborative learning in our sorts of courses, and I agree that such a response has to do with fear and with habit. What we ask them to do takes real energy–it is hard work to engage in active collaboration. It involves risk to put our work out there. We’ve trained students to follow the yellow brick road and so when a teacher wanders away from what they know and expect, students are often at a loss as to how to be in such a learning environment. And sometimes we do a lousy job of balancing heart and mind, individual and group, freedom and restraint. No wonder they’re confused and reluctant bloggers.

    Maxine Greene and John Dewey have both said that imagination breaks through the habit of inertia (or is it the inertia of habit…). That’s why I spent so much time working on the community of learners, having students really take a long look at themselves as reciprocal apprentices at the beginning of the semester. As we blogged, we reflected on its impact on our learning. Not everyone liked it. Some resented it. But I have found that many who openly disliked it have come back to me over the years after the experience to thank me. I’ve also found this sort of teaching creates tension because it so often falls outside the norm of everything else they are experiencing in their classrooms, which are, for the most part, exceptionally traditional, even when they purport to be innovative. Especially when it comes to grading. It is challenging to build the kind of trust necessary for a community to develop out of a classroom.

    As for the students dropping blogs at the end of the semester, I don’t mind that at all. I expect it. Course blogging is artificial, group and time-defined; as the community disbands after the course, it is impossible to keep up the momentum even if we desire to do so. But that’s fine. They can come back to this sort of reflective conversation when they find a subject they are passionate enough about to want to converse about it in this way–or whatever way. All we’re doing is opening the doors. They get to choose whether they step through or not.

  5. Shoot. I really really really wish I had had time for this!

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