Two Kinds of Writers

In 1920, the humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote in Vanity Fair,

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

In the spirit of this quote, I hope there are not two kinds of writers: those who like to discuss the writing process and those who do not. Both kinds, in my view, would be rather irritating, though I’d be a little more receptive to the second. There’s a time and place for discussing the writing process, and an eternity for not doing so.

Problems with discussing the writing process? There’s so much variety that one cannot draw any conclusions about a “right” way. What’s more, the “process” discussions tend to ignore substance. There are writers who revise constantly and those whose first draft is almost always their last. There are those who adhere to a strict routine and those who write whenever the ideas strike them. There are those who suffer terribly from writer’s block and those who have never known it. There are those who insist on writing in pen, or with the trusty Remington, or through dictation. In the end, I don’t care what they do, if the writing is good.

Yet staying mum is problematic too. There are writers who hold themselves above describing what they actually do; they insinuate that their work is mystical and untouchable, and that any mention of process is the mark of a lesser talent. Or they refrain from discussing it lest they expose a weakness–an embarrassing first draft, for instance, or an abundance of unfinished work. Silence is golden, but gold can be the ornament of a snob.

The ideal would be to talk about it sometimes but not all the time. Just how much would depend on the person’s judgment and circumstances. If you have been invited to speak to young people about your writing process, and have agreed to do so, then a secretive attitude is out of place. However, if you are at a tea party where people are going on about how they love “workshopping” their work (and you don’t particularly love doing that), then you have every right to maintain a happy hush.

I revise a lot. One thing I enjoy about having a blog is that I can come back and change things later. (When I do, I indicate this in a note at the end of the post, unless the changes are too minor to mention.) I rethink things continually; months or years later, I may see a better way of putting them. This is true for my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

This morning I made some revisions to an old poem, “Jackrabbit.” It’s one of my favorites (of my older pieces), but the original version and even a later version had some strained parts. The current version will rest as is.Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined doubts,
senses, untasted dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the wild
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the swift emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had gotten caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all lines of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

The First CONTRARIWISE Interview

Last May, Mark Balawender, communications director for PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), interviewed the CONTRARIWISE co-editors-in-chief and two contributors. His wonderful piece was published today on the PLATO website.

CONTRARIWISE is my school’s philosophy journal. The inaugural issue, released last February, received a lovely review from Cynthia Haven. The second issue will feature an international contest!

The Role of Love in Teaching

This is not meant to be a spoiler, nor is it meant to be taken out of context. In the final chapter of Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green remembers the advice–received separately from Doug Lemov and Andy Snyder–that good teachers must love their students. After making a hurtful comment to a student during a guest lesson, and seeing the expression on the girl’s face, Green writes, “Staring back at her, I thought about how she was a human, a person I cared about. I decided that I loved her.” (This has already been quoted in Charlie Tyson’s review of the book on Inside Higher Ed.)

Soon I will say something about the book as a whole. Right now, I want to consider the general questions: Should teachers love their students? Is it possible to love all of one’s students? What does it mean to love one’s students, or to love anyone?

I will take up the last question first, since I find that the word “love” is thrown about too carelessly. We live in a time when you can “like” something with just a click, and where “love” seems just a few clicks away from “like.” There’s also a widespread belief (rooted in various religious traditions) that if you have a loving heart, you can love everyone, especially children. I would say that love is much rarer and more difficult than that.

What does it mean to love someone? It is not easily pinpointed, because love is in motion, and it comes in different forms. If we are considering basic human love–of a nonfamilial and nonerotic kind, that is, love based on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional but not physical bonds–then it has perhaps three sides: first, a recognition of another person as human (that is, a recognition of the person’s dignity); second, an appreciation of the person’s particulars, the things that distinguish him or her from others; and third, a genuine wish for that person’s well-being–that is, the person’s movement toward the good. Each of these aspects contains still more: for instance, a recognition of what one doesn’t know about the person, and a recognition that he or she is not static but changing.

Given this definition of love, it seems, on the surface, that we can and should have this love for everyone. But it is one of the most difficult things in the world. Each of us is given certain insights and certain blindness, which may or may not change over time. The insights allow us to see another person’s beauty (or shortcomings, as the case may be); the blindness may prevent us from seeing the same. In addition, it is our very idiosyncrasies that give meaning to love in the first place. If everyone loved me, I don’t think I would feel loved at all. There is something important about being recognized in the crowd, of being singled out. If love were universal, we would have no names. Everyone might as well be called “X.”

Even dignity–the most basic element of love–is difficult to keep in view all the time. In I and Thou (1923), Martin Buber describes the fleeting nature of the true I-You encounter; it comes and goes and cannot be held, but once one has known it, one knows it is there: “You cannot come to an understanding about it with others; you are lonely with it; but it teaches you to encounter others and to stand your ground in such encounters; and through the grace of its advents and the melancholy of its departures it leads you to that You in which the lines of relation, though parallel, intersect. It does not help you to survive; it only helps you to have intimations of eternity.”

But if dignity, fully realized, is elusive, it is also the most stable of the elements; one can honor it in anyone, and one can always keep it in view. A teacher may not be able, all the time, to treat others (or even herself) with full dignity, but she can recognize when she does and doesn’t. (One of my poems from long ago, “Looking Glass,” has to do with this–though it isn’t about teaching.) I think Green may be talking primarily about dignity here, although she calls it love.

A teacher can keep dignity in view, strive to treat everyone with dignity, and recognize her own shortcomings in that regard. That, to me, is a worthy aspiration for all teachers. What about love, then?

Returning to the three sides of love–recognition of dignity, appreciation of particulars, and wish for the person’s well-being–I would say that it can never be mandated, in the classroom or anywhere else, and that any effort to enforce it will lead to betrayal of others and self. It is much too rare and too precious to be encoded. But then I am puzzled by Leviticus 19:18: “Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (In Hebrew: לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה). If love of others is commanded here, what does it mean? It must be something different from the definition I gave above, yet it must also go beyond recognition of dignity.

In a short piece in The Jewish Magazine, Ahuva Bloomfield explains that the Hebrew ahava, “love,” has the same root as hav, “to give.” There is thus a connection between loving and giving–precisely because giving creates a connection with others. Bloomfield suggests that to give is, in fact, to love, because the act becomes the bond.

Yet giving, too, is a tricky thing. First, it’s challenging. Many of us fall short in generosity to ourselves, to others, or both. Also, giving must be tempered. Give too much, and you wear yourself out–and make yourself unable to listen or receive. Give the wrong things, in the wrong way, and you prevent others from showing what they have.

A parent comes to know these complexities well. You can wish to give comfort to your son or daughter who has gone through a disappointment–being turned down for the school play, for instance, or being rejected by a peer. The comforting has its place but can also get in the way. Young people (and older people) need to go through certain things in their raw form. So a parent comes to recognize when to give comfort and when not to do so. Not doing so is also a form of giving.

In teaching, giving takes many forms–and must often combine with abstinence from giving. A teacher gives to the students by showing a way into a subject–and also by letting them figure out certain things for themselves. She gives to the students by being alert to their ups and downs–but also respecting their privacy. In addition, to give well, a teacher must have integrity; she must know her own limits and be willing to stay true to them. In doing so, she allows the students to have limits as well.

Where does this leave us? It seems that a teacher should have, first and foremost, an active intellect and conscience–a willingness to seek and seek. At the root of this is a recognition that there is more to learn–that we are full of error, and that even the highest attainments are only hints.

“But that was the thing that I was born for.”

marlinWhen I taught English as a Second Language at a middle school in Brooklyn (from 2005 to 2008), I had my students read The Old Man and the Sea, which they adored. One of our liveliest debates was about whether the old man enjoyed being alone; they found that a single textual passage could serve as evidence for either side. Moreover, they found it possible that he could like being alone and not like it at the same time.

For a side project, I had students select and illustrate a favorite quote. This illustration (pictured here) moved me; the student told me I could to keep it. The quote reads, “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.” Here, in the drawing, you see the skeleton of the marlin against a desolate beach, with driftwood and a restaurant table and chair. The scene looks desolate and broken, but there’s something grand about it too: the marlin’s skeleton looms much larger than the tiny furniture; there’s something here beyond what humans know and see. Another interesting thing here is the juxtaposition: the quote occurs well before this near-final scene. (The final scene, if one can call it that, is of the old man dreaming about the lions as the boy watches him.)

As I looked at this picture again, I began thinking about my students’ work over the years. They have made some remarkable things. I mention here the few that have links.

There was my students’ production of The Wizard of Oz in 2006.

One student wrote a terse, gorgeous poem that I quoted in full (with her permission and her mother’s) in my book, Republic of Noise.

When I began teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School, I found myself learning from (and sometimes roaring over) my students’ work. One line I recall often: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” (Context: the hermit from Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” walks into a scene based on Gogol’s story “The Nose”; Epictetus and Erasmus’s Folly are also involved.)

Most recently, as readers of this blog know, my students created a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, and had a great celebration in May. We look forward to an exciting second issue; in early fall, the editors-in-chief will call for submissions and announce contests.

These are all published things, known things, or soon-to-be-revealed things. Much more happens every day–in discussions, on homework assignments, on tests–that goes back into the mind, where it becomes part of other shapes and thoughts.

Why does the approaching new year bring up memories? I think a new year has a way of doing that–especially when it comes at this time of year. I remember my teachers too.

 

Note: I made an addition to this piece after posting it.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

A “Good” Common Core Lesson?

In a recent NPR article titled “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” Anya Kamenetz takes the reader through a “good” lesson as explained by Kate Gershon, a research fellow at EngageNY, which develops Common Core instructional materials for New York State. Unfortunately, this lesson exemplifies curricular confusion, misunderstanding of the nature of intellectual work, and a dogmatic approach to pedagogy. Kamenetz picks up on none of this; her reporting is unskeptical and cheerful

The lesson–the very first in the year for a ninth-grade ELA course–focuses on a short story by Karen Russell: “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” Students begin by reading and discussing the pertinent standards–then spend most of class time circling and looking up unfamiliar words.

Russell’s story looks promising–but the rationale for its inclusion makes me shake my head. According to Gershon, it meets the standards’ criteria in four areas: complexity, “canon” (in that the author was a Pulitzer finalist), contemporaneity (the standards use the phrase “contemporary authors” in numerous places), and diversity. What about its inherent quality., though? What about its form and meaning? What about its relation to the other works in the unit or course?

To be fair, Gershon does mention that this is a “gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer”–so it would be a stretch to say that she (or the curriculum writers) ignored inherent quality. But shouldn’t that be the first consideration: offering the students something worth reading and rereading over a lifetime? The other criteria–complexity, canon, contemporaneity, and diversity–should be subordinate to this first consideration. (In addition, one might include works for their importance–because other works allude to them, or because they do something unusual with their genre or form. That’s related to “canon” but not identical to it.)

Moreover, a curriculum as a whole should have coherence and meaning. A ninth-grade literature course may well be a survey course–but the works can still be selected to combine in interesting ways. I can’ say for sure that this isn’t the case here–but it’s curious that the article doesn’t touch on curriculum. Without a literature curriculum, a Common Core lesson quickly turns into a lesson on reading skills. That may explain why, on the very first day of the school year, the students begin by reading and discussing the standards, and then turn to their main activity of circling and looking up words.

If this were a literature course, the teacher would give an overview of the works, questions, and problems to be considered. The students might well read something on that first day–in order to start thinking about the substance of the course. The teacher might take them into a passage–reading it out loud, pointing out subtleties, and posing questions. Strangely, the current lesson is based on disparagement of such activity. It rests on the premise that the teacher is not supposed to present much at all, lest her “performance” make the students lazy.

This leads to the next problem. Underlying this lesson is a misunderstanding of intellectual work. According to Gershon and others, students will be hard at work under the Common Core. Teachers will no longer be making things easy for them, as they did in the past when they presented literature to students.

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time “performing” literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

That’s a caricature of literature instruction–and I’ll get to that in a minute–but what strikes me here is the assumption that if the teacher is explaining the literature, the students are doing no work. Now, this might be true, if the teacher’s explanation is reductive–that is, if she is handing students basic plot points and other takeaways. But there are many other ways to take students into a text, ways that will get them thinking.

Thinking should be  the essential work of the classroom. Students can and should look up words at home; in class, they come together to hear the teacher and each other, to pose questions, and to test out ideas. Of course, this can vary: there may well be days when the teacher has students write or work with unfamiliar vocabulary. But it takes discipline and concentration to listen, think, and speak in a whole-class discussion–and the classroom is the best place for such work and leisure. Students learn to discern when they do and do not have something to say; in the former case, they may speak up; in the latter, they may listen. Such discernment will serve them well in college and beyond.

Can the Common Core really claim to prepare students for college and career when it equates “hard work” exclusively with visible physical activity–such as annotating a text in class? What about the hard work of listening to the teacher and forming a question or challenge?

Just as the lesson misconceives intellectual work, so it misrepresents teaching.

Common Core advocates are zealously repeating the mistakes of their predecessors: they insist that in the bad old days (or backward regions of current days), the teacher stood at the front of the room and yakked, while the students passively took in plot points and didn’t learn to read. What forgetfulness! For years under Balanced Literary, teachers were told to be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” But teaching is much more complex than these crass oppositions allow. Back to the NPR piece:

[The Common Core's emphasis on actual reading] sounds obvious. We don’t go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with “the three or four highest-performing students in the room,” Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.

[...]

One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students’ way and not to make it too easy on anyone. “It’s very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling,” Gerson says. “What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle … where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else.”

Now, a teacher in dialogue with several students isn’t necessarily ensuring comfort at all. True, if she spoke only with those students for the whole year, a dreary kind of comfort could take over. But often a dialogue like that can inspire others to join. Or a teacher can involve others deliberately–or give them ample time to puzzle over difficult questions. A teacher at the front of the room may be giving students the challenge of their lives. Let us not assume that she should “get out of the students’ way” or that she takes anything away from them by teaching them.

In his essay “Former Teachers” (in his 1943 collection Philosopher’s Holiday), Irwin Edman recalls his English teacher Mr. Michael Kelleher, who “gave us the contagious impression of so liking poetry that he simply had to tell us about it.” Edman may not have known how blessed he was that no one told his teacher to get out of the way.

 

Note: I made some revisions to this piece after posting it. One of these is a correction: Karen Russell was a Pulitzer finalist, not a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text–too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones n various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”

 

Note: I made some edits to this piece after posting it.

 

Education Without “Stuff”

In many areas of life, the less “stuff” we have, the better. A person learning a musical instrument works toward simplicity. Technique that at first seems cumbersome and complicated later becomes easy; it is ultimately meant to be easy, so that one can do what one wishes with it. An actor goes “off book” as early as possible so as not to be encumbered by the book. In relationships and friendships, the less “baggage” we carry, the more open we are to others–and so on. The principle “get rid of unnecessary stuff” has exceptions and qualifications, but overall, it’s sound.

Yet education reform tends to pile the “stuff” on. That’s one of my main criticisms of the Common Core–that it results in extraneous work that has little to do with what’s important. But this problem is not limited to the Common Core. One sees it in everything from pedagogical mandates to bulletin board requirements to tenure applications to writing instruction. There’s a prejudice against brevity and simplicity, and a great push for more, more, more.

I do not envy colleagues who have to put together massive tenure portfolios. (I was tenured when the rules were different–so I haven’t been subjected to this.) In these portfolios, they must not only demonstrate the range and quality of their work, in accordance with a set rubric, but also demonstrate that they are demonstrating it, with labels, reflections, explanations, and so on. Even those who have worked assiduously on their portfolios–and who have plenty to show–may worry that they haven’t included enough. Recently a teacher told me that she keeps all of her students’ work (after showing them their grades and comments), just in case she needs to document what she has done.

Now, granted, there is value in keeping track of what one has done as a teacher–but does it need to be done in such volume? That leads to another area of bulk: the Common Core.

The Common Core State Standards are neither terrible nor spectacular. They have some decent ideas, imperfectly articulated. As a gesture, the Common Core is a valuable document. As a mandate, it complicates good work. Teachers of literature courses, for instance, must now document their implementation of the standards–with lengthy lesson and unit plans, “tasks” matched to standards, and so on. That would not be so onerous if they could take the standards at face value–but instead, they must prepare students for assessments that reflect questionable (and sometimes even bizarre) interpretations of the standards. Thus their work is tripled: they must teach their courses, demonstrate explicitly that they are addressing the standards, and contend with official interpretations of what that means.

What’s lost here is a sense of economy–of keeping one’s basic duties as simple as possible so that one can do interesting things. Instead, teachers learn to produce volume: long, elaborate lesson plans, even longer justifications of these lesson plans, and still longer lists of evidence that the lesson plan attained the desired goals.

Students, too, face pressure to substantiate their statements with copious “evidence.” Now, using evidence is a worthy practice–but one must take care not to overdo it. More evidence does not automatically make for a better argument–nor do all arguments require “evidence,” strictly speaking. Machiavelli uses numerous historical examples to justify the points he makes in The Prince–but one can question his interpretation of these examples. John Stuart Mill uses very few concrete examples in On Liberty, but this is appropriate for his mode of speaking. In order to determine the proper use of examples, one must know what one wishes to say in the first place.

Standardized writing assessments (and, by consequence, writing instruction) rarely focuses on what one has to say, or even how well one says it. Instead, it emphasizes adherence to a rubric, where more is better (“at least two textual details to support your point,” etc.) Students get into the habit of making a statement, supporting it with two examples, stating that the two examples support the statement, and concluding that the statement is true. There’s a lot of faulty logic and excess verbiage in that. Here’s a made-up example:

John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” suggests that love can survive separation. For example, in the second stanza, he says, “So let us melt, nor make no noise.” This means that he is telling his wife that they shouldn’t cry when they have to part from each other. He says this because the love is stronger than the separation. Another example is in the fifth stanza, where he says, “Our two souls, therefore, which are one, / Though I must go, endure not yet / A breach, but an expansion.” This means that when lovers are separated, their love remains and is even expanded by the distance. He says this because he believes their relationship is strong enough to survive. In conclusion, Donne is saying in this poem that when lovers are separated, their love can continue and even get stronger.

This would meet the criteria of many a writing test–but there is much waste in it, and many missed insights. The idea that “love can survive separation” is fairly trivial; it’s the metaphors that make the idea rich. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to examine the word “melt”–in its immediate context and in relation to the final line of the fifth stanza, “Like gold to airy thinness beat”? Yet a student who did so might receive a lower score–because the essay didn’t include enough “evidence” (or seemed to go “off topic”). An essay that stays “on topic”–but states the topic over, and over, and over again–will often receive a higher score than an essay that follows the wit.

There is much more “evidence” that education places inordinate value on “stuff”–but I believe I have made my point.

On a tangent (but speaking of “stuff”): I am dismayed to see the new “look and feel” of poets.org It used to be one of my favorite websites–because you could focus on the poetry itself. It didn’t try to look like the flashy websites. It didn’t try to get all social. Now you have to scroll through a frame to read a whole poem, and you’re surrounded by “easy reading” font and social media icons. Someone on the staff must have persuaded others that rhinoceroses are in fact beautiful.

The Privacy of Speaking One on One

Lately I joined Facebook in order to do specific things. I had joined before, a few years ago, then quit because I didn’t like it. This time around, I was bewildered all over again by the prevalence of group updates—the practice of telling a large group about life events, major and minor. I couldn’t keep up with these conversations and didn’t want to join them. I miss the old-fashioned practice of speaking with an individual.

Online group communication can be a boon at times. For instance, someone with a medical emergency could keep her friends posted without having to write individually to each one. A medium like Facebook can be useful for announcements as well–of events, special occasions, and so on. The problem lies not in individuals’ use of Facebook or any other online medium, but rather in the general drift away from private association. I am uneasy with the ubiquitous group conversation and the pressure to surrender private conversations to the group.

The problem is not restricted to the internet. In many situations, individual conversations are subject to interruption and curtailment, and people are not staunch about defending them. There’s a general assumption that a conversation belongs to anyone—that it is up for grabs. When people interrupt, they are often not conscious of interrupting, or don’t see the interruption as a problem. Thus, most conversations don’t last long.

Growing up, I saw and heard excessive quotation of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” (especially the first two lines). I don’t hear it quoted any more. It isn’t in the air.

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The poem is stark no matter what the times, but today it stands out so severely against everything we are asked to do. The repetition of “Unmoved” in the second stanza seems defiant now, and it’s a defiance I miss, even though I have it to an extent. We are supposed to move along with things, to be responsive to as many people and events as possible. To stay “unmoved” in the face of demands is to shirk one’s unwritten obligation. But it may be a way of keeping a greater obligation.

And what comes next? “I’ve known her — from an ample nation —Choose One —” Who gets to do that today—except when choosing a spouse? It is possible, of course, to meet with particular friends, but it’s challenging, given people’s complicated schedules and tendency to do things in groups. The problem is not new, but it has taken on new forms. A Yale professor remarked to me recently that he doesn’t see students talking to each other one on one any more. He used to see them on the lawn, on benches, in dining halls. Now he sees four, five, six students talking with each other or walking through campus together.

Is that all terrible? Of course not. But some of it is terrible.

Granted, there’s something terrible on either end. The poem is not sweet. Even in my childhood, I got a chill from the last two lines: “Then — close the Valves of her attention — Like Stone —” (where “Like Stone” sounds like stone clapping, and the dash aftwarwards, like an unknown). Even then, there was something disturbing about the poem: a suggestion that an intimate friendship required hostility of a kind. (I loved Julie Harris’s rendition in The Belle of Amherst—I think she brought this out.)

But that hostility can be a kind of protection, an enshrinement. The poem has a subtlety and surprise: the “Society” of the first line is the “One” in the final stanza. This One is a society, in that the soul can associate with it as it could not with a pausing chariot or kneeling emperor.

It takes courage to lift one person above the “whatever”—to meet with one person, to write to one person, to listen to one person. It takes the willingness to shut others out for a stretch. There is solitude in this.

I am not talking about limiting one’s entire company to one person; that is dangerous and confining. Nor am I saying that all meetings should be one on one. There are no mandates or policy prescriptions here. I am talking about the simple practice of spending time with an individual—and having strength and room for such a meeting.

Dickinson’s poem suggests an absoluteness of attention that people in any era might find terrifying. It goes a bit beyond what I am describing here–but is part of it all the same. There is a stalk of such staunchness even in a dialogue over coffee.

To speak to a particular person as one would speak to no one else; to notice things about the other that others may notice too, but not in the same way; to hear stories take shape, stories that belong to the two, because they come out of the listening and telling—this is the privacy that I defend.

Note: Just after posting this piece, I added what is now the penultimate paragraph.

Solitude of Time

The subject of solitude seems trickier and trickier, the more I think about it–and more and more important. Yet it is important only in relation to things that require it. There is no sense in pursuing or defending solitude for its own sake. Also, it is possible (and even common) to seek solitude for the wrong reasons–such as escape and self-defense. They are “wrong” insofar as they involve closing off the mind and the experience. To make things even more perplexing, it is possible to seek  solitude for “right” and “wrong” reasons at the same time.

But what is this solitude? In his treatise De vita solitaria (On the Solitary Life), Petrarch posits three kinds of solitude: solitude of place, solitude of time, and solitude of the mind. For a long time, it was the third that interested me the most; recently, I have been thinking about solitude of time.

Solitude of time comes in many forms. There is solitude of chronos, the procession of time; solitude of kairos, the right moment for things, and solitude that combines the two.

We often think of time as a material possession: “I have time” or “I have no time.” When viewed as such, it seems closely related to money; a wealthy person has leisure time, whereas a poor person must work.

But it is possible to view time not as possession, but as vastness and structure. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes of the “architecture of time“–in particular, Shabbat, which opens up an infinity of time. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” he writes, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” He makes clear that he does not disparage information-gathering for a higher good: “What we plead against is man’s unconditional surrender to space, his enslavement to things. We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.”

It is easy to forget the difficulty and unpopularity of Heschel’s words. They come from solitude; they demand solitude. They ask us to set aside our trinket-gathering, if only for a little while.

The artist Karen Kaapcke (who happens to be a parent at my school) articulates something similar (albeit quite differently) on her “Drawing 50 Blog“–her project, beginning on her 50th birthday, of drawing a self-portrait every day for a year. “This is surprising to me,” she writes–“the path of these drawings is less about me, my 51st year, how do I look as I age – and more about what living as a draftsperson, being-in-the-world as a draftsperson, means. And so, I am finding that sometimes the drawings, while starting with myself, do not have the sense of being about only myself, but a connection to a state that might be, almost, universal.”

There is something solitary about recognizing time. That recognition can take different forms–but one is alone in it. On the day that my students’ philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, arrived in boxes, I had come to school just for that occasion (I had no classes on that day). But even when the boxes were within feet of me, I knew it wasn’t time to open the first one; that had to wait for the editors-in-chief. That was a short wait–but I remember the utter clarity of it.

The right time is not always “now.” (The hermit in Tolstoy’s story “The Three Questions is wrong.) The right time is now only when one recognizes that it is now.  Sometimes the right time is “not yet”; that very stretch of time between “not now” and “now” is solitary.

Timing in speech and music–a sense of tempo, rhythm, cadence, pause–is another way of recognizing time, of grasping the intersection between the stream and the moment. One knows when the timing is right, yet such timing is entirely singular, never to be repeated exactly. Even if it were repeated exactly, it might not be right the second time.

Time is not just a segment or line; it has dimension. Solitude lets you see into the dimension. One could reword a line from Zarathustra’s Roundelay, to say “Die Zeit ist tief” instead of “Die Welt ist tief”–but they  mean something similar, since it is the deep midnight speaking here. (It is part of the answer to the question posed in the first two lines: “O Mensch! Gib acht! / Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?”

There are times when possessible time dries up and crumbles, and the true time opens up. But we always return to the illusion of possessible time. (We must, in order to “do” anything with time.) Is it that simple, though? Does time divide up like that, into the illusory and the real? Or is it necessary to “grab” time in order to see past the grabbing? I think the latter: “material” time can lead to “matterless” time, as long as we allow this to happen.  For example, a person can get things done by a certain time in order to have a stretch of doing nothing. Also, the completed things, once done, are there for good, even if they decay materially.

Why is the solitude of time important? When one finds it, one is no longer subject (entirely) to group demands and rush. One has to meet certain demands, but one also stands outside them. It’s like having a mansion that costs no money and isn’t in the least bit gaudy.

 P.S. Those interested in solitude may wish to tune in to The Forum (BBC World Service) this weekend.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece (for style and clarity) after posting it.

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