Learning from Heaney, Wilson and Tharp

Sir Robert's chainmail

As I cringe in response to semesters drawing to their tidy close with teachers assigning the term paper or the final examination, claiming that it is the repeated practice of such projects that leads students to higher-level thinking and writing, I turn as I often do to the thinkers who push me (and punish me). Today I pulled de Certeau off the shelf, and the book I am just reaching into for the first time, thanks to my old colleague Hector Vila, Consilience by Edward O. Wilson, and an old friend, Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers. I often rail against the mind-numbing repetition of essentially the same assignment across and through an educational journey. But I also believe in practice, such as Twyla Tharp discusses in The Creative Habit:

“There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other.

It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time. Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five. If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.” (thanks to 43 Folders for the link to the first chapter)

the house as if in a fairy tale, November late afternoon

Practice, yes, but term papers? Exams? Portfolios? Yes, I haven’t seen many effective uses of these either–they often devolve into single-noted reflection of a single student’s work out of context of the conversation of the class, or of the world. Practicing for what? Who writes term papers in their adult life? Takes that kind of final exam, flat on paper, the individual droning on? At least in Italy, students take oral exams in a give-and-take discussion (of sorts)–I’m really trying to find a good reason for an exam except to test short-term knowledge and learning. I know, I know, the exam is supposed to allow the student to synthesize the learning, to apply it, even, to new situations. But it is done so narrowly–within a single subject or line of thinking–not across disciplines. What if students had to synthesize the learning in their four or five courses, by pushing the subjects up against one another? BY going out and finding arguments countering their own? By going out and making things to explore the dissonance, the contradictions, the tensions between views, realities, and facts? What if they had to write in response to other student’s arguments, as reviewers, and then to synthesize the earlier arguments into something more extensive, practicing the art of synthesis of a range of idea an perspectives? I proposed something of the sort in a comment to Brian Lamb’s post about making assessment more meaningful.

This is what Wilson has to say about the future of the liberal arts:

“We are drowning in information , while starving for wisdom. The world will henceforth be run my synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

The future of the liberal arts lies, therefore, in addressing the fundamental questions of human existence head on, without embarrassment or fear, taking them from the top down in easily understood language, and progressively rearranging them into domains of inquiry… I find it hard to conceive of an adequate core curriculum in colleges and universities that avoids cause-and-effect connections among the great branches of learning–not metaphor, not the usual second-order lucubrations on why scholars of different disciplines thik this or that, but material cause and effect.” (pp.269-270)

November dawn

Heaney, too, helps me here, in his essay “Feeling into Words”:

“I think technique is different from craft. Craft is what you learn from other verse, Craft is the skill of making. It wins competition… It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self…

Technique, as I would define it, involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of meter, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves also the definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality…Technique entails the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines; it is that whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisprudence of form. Technique is what turns, in Yeats’ phrase, ‘the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’ into ‘an idea, something intended, complete.'” (pp. 20-21)

How through the traditional expository research term paper, or the final examination are we teaching the practice of craft, which might grow into technique, into synthesis, into wisdom?

Why don’t we demand more of ourselves as teachers?


6 Responses

  1. Have you actually read Twyla Tharp’s book? Whoa! I’m in awe of her self-discipline and hard-ass work ethic. Inspiring, for sure, but I finished it feeling like a do-nothing wimp.

  2. Ah ha…I saw this come up on my screen…Nicely done, Barbara, but…there’s always a but I assure you from me…

    I believe that you’re putting the cart before the horse (might as well stick to our VT horse metaphors).

    Wilson, though, would want to know, in fact he assails in his book, that we first determine the world we want to live in–a departmentalized/compartmentalized one or one in which cooperation and collaboration work in a creative process?

    We are in the age of “the business of education,” not the age of “knowledge,” or as I’ve called it recently, given our wars and our economy, The Age of Education’s Failure. But we don’t seem to be moving off this hard rock. We have to hopefully excite people about a dialog that is focused on who we want to be tomorrow. Once this happens, we can start asking the question, in education, about how we’re going to get there.

    I don’t have much optimism in the Obama education initiatives, believing that in this world they’re a bit like a fish out of water. I wrote about it here: http://hectorvila.com/2009/02/03/hopeonatightrope/

    Obama’s greatest challenge, I think, is to change American’s perception of themselves, which in turn will take education. But it has to be less about term papers and essays and end game products, as you say, and more about what are we doing, I think, and why. Of course, the BS is so high that everything and anything I say is totally muffled and buried. So I’m left to be increasingly pessimistic.

  3. […] thinking about new ways to use assessment. Here is a link to one of her reflections on assessment “Learning from Heaney, Wilson and Tharp” […]

  4. […] thinking about new ways to use assessment. Here is a link to one of her reflections on assessment “Learning from Heaney, Wilson and Tharp” […]

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