On Representation

Penguins on the beach in Cape Peninsula, SA by Tricia Jenkins

Beach penguins at Cape Peninsula, South Africa. Photographed by Tricia Jenkins.

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

The first time I read Emerson I was a teenager in college–more of a beach bum, really, enrolled in classes in San Diego but having trouble concentrating day to day. I liked how Emerson’s words felt as they drifted through my mind, his sentences like fractals, repetitive pulsations of insight. I would sit in the sand and look at seashells and think about how each one was a metaphor for lives lived and gone, leaving fragments of themselves strewn about, beautiful and broken.

The second time I read Emerson I was more ready for it. I was twice as old and studying rhetoric for a living. As I ruminated on his essay Language I realized that even though Emerson talks about nature symbolically, he isn’t using metaphor in the customary way. He isn’t just suggesting that we, for example, view a seashell as a symbol of death, nor even as a representative fact of life (even though he says that). Rather, he is suggesting that every seashell is Life, every seashell is the whole world. It’s not merely a “likeness” of the world (even though he says that too); it is uniquely significant all on its own, as a divine creation, and by studying it deeply enough we come to understand its infinite wisdom. The trick, if I can call it that, is to value the single seashell so much–to stay with it long after I think I’ve grasped its metaphorical meaning–to trust that it has much more to notice and ponder because that seashell itself contains everything.

So the American tourist goes to South Africa and sees penguins on the beach. First, let’s face it, she’s just gobsmacked to see penguins on the beach. In Africa. Second, she observes how the behavior of penguins at the beach is pretty much just like the behavior of humans at the beach: they’re all visitors, waddling around, lolling in the sand, cooly observing one another there–each as if the other species belongs somewhere else. Lots of metaphorical observations ensue, during which the tourists (human or penguin) come to represent keen insights about social dynamics or globalization or commercialization or whatever.

But all of that is too pat, isn’t it? It’s fun, but it’s smug. It’s the kind of insight a lot of us make every day, congratulating ourselves on our witty reading of a representative anecdote. It’s a meme.

If we really want to understand the metaphor, to deeply learn from it, we must start by taking seriously the thing itself rather than leaping to conclusions about whatever it may represent.

This is the lesson I learned in South Africa last week. My new Emerson is Karen Worcman, founder of Brazil’s Museum of the Person. She challenged us all to acknowledge that every person’s story matters not for the ways it represents some larger idea or trend or community but because it’s enough. A life lived matters. It is worth remembering. It is worth knowing. An individual life is enough because it is everything. It is the whole world.

As I return to my classroom tonight, to students whose mission is an oral history project with people representing (yep–I said that on the assignment sheet) different perspectives on the gentrification of the historic neighborhood near campus, I feel humbled, schooled really, and grateful to Karen for reminding me to have faith in the power of individual stories to teach us enough. To teach us everything. Here is the video I will use to begin that conversation in class:

 

 

 

The Heart of a Teacher

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Yoga is the annihilation of the walls we build around our hearts.  –Baron Baptiste (in Cox, Warrior Self)

The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require. –Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach 

Much of what I am learning this year is about the discipline, the yoga, of teaching with an open heart. When I call it a yoga I mean that it is an intensely deliberate practice, one that involves paying attention to the ways resistance and receptivity arise in any learning environment and in ourselves. This approach to open-heartedness is different than simply being enthusiastic with students–which is how I would describe what I’ve always been before. I’ve always loved them, but it was automatic and easy for me, kind of the way it’s easy for a hyper-flexible person to do a split or a forward fold. My open-heartedness was just me being myself. Even those students who may not love me or my class I will pretty much love anyway because I remember what it’s like to feel disconnected from a teacher; I empathize. Love doesn’t have to be reciprocal. Likewise, I always love teaching, even on bad days, because it is such creative and compelling work. I will forever be learning how to teach. I love that, even when I don’t love how I’m teaching in a particular moment. But again, all of this is me defaulting to my habitual self as an open-hearted teacher teaching.

Many teachers are like this. Parker Palmer knows it. I think one of the things Palmer is challenging us to address is that open-heartedness brings with it a vulnerability and, I would add, a loss of mindfulness, that can be damaging to ourselves and others even if it sometimes enables us to do our best work.

Open-hearted teaching isn’t just about approaching our students with loving-kindness, nor about owning up to the fact that we care about whether they care about our teaching. To teach with an open heart you first must know where your heart is, and what it is. The walls Baron Baptiste inspires yogis to annihilate aren’t necessarily barriers we’ve erected to protect our hearts from others; they may also be barnacles–crusty creatures that have latched on to us over the years, giving our lives an interesting form but concealing who we are underneath. Palmer describes this truer heart as our identity and integrity, a melding of intellect and emotion and self-awareness and being.

Teaching yoga has been surprisingly difficult for me because my apprenticeship requires me to practice by leading a room full of students through a series of poses. This is what a yoga class looks like, after all. And yes when teaching  I am encouraged to walk around from person to person, not to stand and lecture, but the experience still feels profoundly artificial to me because what I want to do is work with just one person at a time–to look closely at her alignment and engage in a dialogue about how she got there before articulating a sequence of actions.

What I am describing is a tutorial–says my writing teacher self. So what I am learning, or remembering, about myself is that even though I have grown comfortable teaching groups of people about subjects I know better than yoga (such as writing) my teaching identity is really more of a tutor, someone whose heart opens most fully during one-to-one moments of teaching and learning. Those are the moments when I feel most effective. As a yoga teacher, part of my challenge is that I haven’t yet learned to scale-up my teaching, to quickly assess the needs of a dozen bodies aligned in rows, and until I can do that it’s tough to manage the choreography of deftly pausing to assist an individual.

Learning to teach something new has stripped away most of the scaffolding I’ve built over 20 years as a professor of writing and left me with just myself. In the studio, all I have is 200 hours of yoga-teacher training, a serious interest in therapeutics, and the heart of a tutor.

Recognizing that dimension of my teaching heart doesn’t excuse me from showing up and teaching a whole class, but it does give me a clue about what it looks like to ask my heart “to hold more than it is able.” To strengthen my heart’s capacity to be true to itself in the studio I must practice two things at once: holding fast to my integrity as someone who values personalized instruction, while releasing the expectation that I would, in a single transaction, make a bigger difference in each student’s life as a tutor than as a teacher. If the heart of my teaching is being present, in any context, I need to remember this is something that comes from within. The number of students in the room neither magnifies nor diminishes how much presence I can bring. Remembering that is yoga too.

 

The Courage to Teach . . . Yoga

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Last week I had a horrible teaching experience, then a wonderful one. A colleague is making a documentary film about liberal arts professors, and the film crew came to record my brilliant transformative teaching–I dressed in blue, had a smart interactive class planned as a lively debriefing about the arts-integrated field excursion my students had just completed. And as the cameras rolled various factors conspired to make the whole class period an awkward mess–and not in a good way 😉  I felt awful and embarrassed, and beat myself up afterwards but still had to walk over to the library to meet the film crew again for some additional footage, doing yoga with a former student to re-enact a funny memory from a year ago when we did spontaneous headstands in the classroom, and she reminded me why this work makes my heart sing, and that made everything nearly OK.

When I got home I opened Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, and read this:

This book is for teachers who have good days and bad, and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves. It is for teachers who refuse to harden their hearts because they love learners, learning, and the teaching life. (1)

Here’s the thing: teaching is a humbling experience no matter how good you try to be, no matter how great your students may be, no matter what Period. And I tack on greater degrees of difficulty because I’m constantly integrating new community partnerships, new projects, new methods. When Palmer wrote that introduction he was entering his third decade of teaching. He’d been teaching 20 years. I began teaching college as a graduate student in 1996. I’m at the same moment in my career as Palmer was, seeking, as he did, to clarify my identity and integrity as a teacher, and to help my colleagues do the same.

About 2 years ago I began a process of attempting to start over, with beginner’s mind, the path of learning my teaching self. I enrolled in yoga teacher training. My purpose for doing so was in some ways straightforward, in others not. My practical motivation was that I was already informally teaching yoga in some of my writing workshops–we would do moving meditations and “yoga for writers” activities, but I wasn’t formally trained and knew I ought to be. Around this time a couple of friends were diagnosed with serious illnesses and I wanted to understand how therapeutic yoga could help them prepare for and recover from surgeries and after-effects. I was also still very much interested in how digital ways of knowing intersected with embodied ones and an immersion in asana and anatomy seemed like an interesting new way to get at that. Ultimately, though, my motivation was more selfish and less intellectual. Deep down, I just wanted to get out of my head.

During weekend intensives each month I spent 20 hours in a yoga studio learning to be a teacher. But I was really learning to be a student again.

Palmer says,

When you love your work that much–and many teachers do–the only way to get out of trouble is to go deeper in. We must enter, not evade, the tangles of teaching so we can understand them better and negotiate them with more grace, not only to guard our own spirits but also to serve our students well. (2)

One of the tangles of teaching is that it even though our best practices remind us to focus on the learning, on the students, teaching is still largely about us. We enter the room hoping to share knowledge that we believe matters so much that we’ve invested most of our lives into learning and sharing it, and we have selected subjects and activities that we believe are most crucial for students to engage–quite possibly because they have sparked our our own hearts and minds so brightly. We want to give students the experience of our subject they can best or only get, uniquely, through us. (Otherwise, why not just log on to a MOOC?) If you think a lot about all this (and many of us do) you can find yourself trying so hard to be a great teacher that you lose your grip on the fundamentals of being a good one. Fortunately, there is almost always another chance to do better–another class period, another semester. But this means there is also always another chance, a likelihood even, that you will flop again. Palmer’s book became a classic, I think, because his awareness of the vulnerable, personally invested “self who is teaching” is so honest and true. He challenges us to be, as Florida Scott-Maxwell put it, “fierce with reality”–to own who we are and where we’ve been and why we are still here doing this work (29).

I sit on the mat, nearing the end of my formal training [for now], grateful for that chance to begin again, from scratch, learning to be a teacher. Being a novice is frustrating. I haven’t yet memorized all the Sanskrit terminology or anatomy lessons; I stumble over ways to tell people where to put their feet; I take too long observing the students’ physical alignments before transitioning them into the next pose. But here’s what I know: this is nothing compared to what all there is to know, and yet it is really important stuff. It is fundamental. And when I return to my academic classroom, the teaching of yoga is reminding me to notice again, as if for the first time, where my students “feet” need to be in order to feel grounded enough to move from one task to the next. It is reminding me to notice where mine are as well.

 

Stacks

It’s Friday and I’m feeling wonderfully indulgent–I have a whole day to stay home and write. My dog is beneath the dining table where I sit facing the broad window with its view of my yard filled with 8-foot sunflowers bending in the Oklahoma wind as hundreds of finches cling to the stalks, pecking at seedheads. So determined. My friend Becky calls this backyard theatre. She writes to it too, from an upstairs corner window in a Victorian house in upstate New York, at a desk draped with cats, their tails curling around her stacks of books.

I look at my stack of books. After years of this work I’m still seeking the right sort of stack, one that isn’t too tall (tempting me to allow the reading to overtake the writing) but that can remind me, in a collegial way, about the people and ideas that I’ve been wanting to bring into focus during today’s writing.

Here is my stack:

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In so many ways it’s a gathering of old friends–a few are people I know and love–our work bought us together in the first place, now we share articles and stories and dog photos and rooftop toasts at conferences. Others are scholarly familiars, people whose ideas continue to inspire me. I grabbed these books to assemble my thoughts for a set of interlinking projects: a sample chapter on the assessment of community-engaged writing pedagogy (this for the assessment-focused companion volume to A Guide to Composition Pedagogies I’m developing with my old friend and writing partner, Amy Rupiper Taggart), also a syllabus proposal for a new service-learning course I hope to teach this spring, and a keynote address for a service-learning conference this fall. In all three projects I find myself stepping back to reflect on what I have learned so far about this work and how I have come to trust that knowledge. (Ha! I started to say “believe” but even after 20 years I’m still testing these methods, student by student, community-partner by community partner.)

The sample chapter is building on that basic idea: that long-term teachers of composition have pedagogical foundations that inform our work–theories, principles, practices–as well as heartfelt aims that keep us passionate and questing to get better. In our work on the second edition to GCP Amy, Kurt, and I found that it can be surprisingly challenging to connect the dots between those deep pedagogical aims and the assessments we use in our classes. We have learned a lot, as a field, about how to respond to and assess student texts. But how can you tell whether a student has learned about, say, the power relationships inherent in literacy practices? How can you tell whether a student has become more comfortable with ambiguity or more adept at problem-solving? And if your institution claims a culture of transformative learning, how do you know a student has done some of that in your composition course? We have a few answers to those questions, but even those of us who geek out on such things as integrative learning portfolios know how tricky it can be to consistently assign, evaluate, and communicate progress–especially regarding the hard-to-assess goals that, paradoxically enough, are often the things that make us so passionate about teaching writing in the first place.

So I sit at my desk, mapping out a new syllabus, reviewing the ever-growing list of institutional, departmental, and programmatical learning objectives I’m supposed to address in my 16-week intermediate composition course, deciding how many of my own learning objectives I should add to that list–the things I believe I can uniquely give my students and want to be sure they’ve gotten. Things like the use of digital storytelling for critically reflective learning throughout the course–a habit of mind and situated practice I’ve been developing for a decade or so as a way to help community-engaged students be more intentional and resourceful in the field. “Intentionality” or mindfulness is not, officially, an institutional, departmental, or programmatical learning objective. Nor does it appear on the end-of-semester IDEA course-evaluation form. But I teach it. Because it matters.

And I turn to my stack of sources–people like Stephen Brookfield, Dee Fink, Kristie Fleckenstein, and Peter Elbow–reflecting on what they’ve taught me about the praxis and poetics of teaching and learning, challenging me to surface those things in my students’ work and in the ways I respond to it and to them.

5 Albums For An Epic Night of Paper-Grading

Just in time for Fall: my response to Rhetsy editor Collin Gifford Brooke’s call for 5ives. Here are five albums to transform an evening of paper-grading into a meta journey:

Powaqqatsi Soundtrack

1. Phillip Glass: Powaqqatsi

Miles Davis Kind of Blue

2. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue

Shirim Klezmer Nutcracker

3. Shirim Klezmer Orchestra: Klezmer Nutcracker

Gotan Project

4. Gotan Project: La Revancha Del Tango

The Essential Ravi Shankar

5. Ravi Shankar: The Essential Ravi Shankar