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.

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.

What Is Dialogue in the Classroom?

I intend to write more about David Bromwich’s splendid Politics by Other Means after reading it again. I have stacks of books waiting for me, but they will have to wait a little longer; this book is calling to be reread, and reread it I will. My commentary of the other day seems cursory to me; my thoughts have been writhing and growing, but they need grounding again.

In the meantime, I would like to return to the passage on conversation (on p. 132 of the book). Bromwich argues here that the study of our past is essential to true reflective discourse in the classroom and elsewhere. In his recent book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco makes a seemingly similar point about classroom dialogue: that it is made possible by a study of common texts, a core curriculum, within a community of students and teachers. The subtle difference between their arguments can be traced, I believe, to different conceptions of dialogue or conversation.

Bromwich, it seems, perceives conversation as essentially an exchange between two (two people in the room, or a person with a book, or a person’s understanding of the present with a study of the past). There may be more conversants, but any conversation starts with the two. He does not state this outright; rather, it is evident in the focus and attention he expects of the conversation. Here’s the passage from which I quoted the other day:

Above all, conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before. This may mean a different way of living, of thinking, of being. But for a citizen of modern America, the largest, almost the only unimaginable difference, is between the new which we inhabit and the old which we have never seen enough of to forget. It is because the distance between our lives and those of the past seems to be so commanding a fact—greater than the difference that separates us from any alien culture today—that I have kept coming back to the arts and habits associated with the study of the past.

Such study is by necessity solitary and concerted, much of the time; while such study involves questioning and argument, it also requires listening and absorption.

Delbanco, likewise, draws attention to the importance of studying the past. But he places less emphasis on the discipline that this requires, and more on the enrichment it brings:

Seen in this long view, the distinctive American contribution [to liberal education] has been the attempt to democratize it, to deploy it on behalf of the cardinal American principle that all persons, regardless of origin, have the right to pursue happiness—and that “getting to know,” in Matthew Arnold’s much-quoted phrase, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” is helpful to that pursuit. This view of what it means to be educated is often caricatured as snobbish and narrow, beholden to the old and wary of the new; but in fact it is neither, as Arnold makes clear by the (seldom quoted) phrase with which he completes his point: “and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” In other words, knowledge of the past helps us to think critically about the present.

On the surface, Bromwich’s and Delbanco’s arguments seem nearly identical—but as they play out in the two books, one sees the differences between them. Delbanco seems just a little less wary of group activity, group work, group consensus, and the intrusion of sociological methods than Bromwich.

In the final chapter, Delbanco discusses, with some skepticism, so-called innovations in higher education. His skepticism seems to vanish when he describes the interactive physics classroom:

Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, having discovered that his students were doing more memorizing than thinking, shifted from the hour-long lecture to shorter periods of exposition alternated with ten-minute periods during which student breakout groups work collaboratively on an assigned problem. Students then report their results through an electronic feedback system, which tells the professor how well they have grasped the point he has just explained. If a significant number haven’t understood it, he returns to it for further discussion before moving on. It’s a way of restoring a dialogic dimension, even in a large class, to the monologic lecture.

Whatever one thinks of Mazur’s approach as described here (and physicists and physics students may be in a better position to judge it than I), it is not a way of restoring a dialogic dimension. Ten-minute periods of small-group work will likely destroy any semblance of dialogue, and the electronic feedback system provides statistics (the percentage of students that got the right answer), not lines of reasoning. True, it is difficult to have a dialogue with more than one or two students in a lecture class–but I would gain much more from a single conversation between professor and student, or from a lecture, than from group activity of this sort.

Contrast this with a peculiarly beautiful passage in Bromwich’s book (I say “peculiarly” because its meaning does not open up at once):

To a teacher who has mattered (as to parents and to certain friends), one has, by definition, a kind of debt that can never be paid back. The consolation is that the teacher has his or her debts, too; and so the source of the debt recedes, back to the beginning of time. As Kierkegaard pointed out in The Case of the Contemporary Disciple, the only way to achieve the illusion of escape from such a debt, without falling into vain pretense or despair, is so to intensify the aspect of the teacher which has mattered most that student and teacher come to seem identical for moments at a time. One then thinks of each as a transparent medium for the other. This is not accurate, of course—not how things could ever look to an intelligent and properly detached observer. It is merely the inward—the psychological, rather than the socialized—way for the disciple to unload the weight of a debt.

If I think of the aspect of a teacher that has mattered most to me, it has to do with the inward. It might be the teacher’s way of speaking about a particular poem (John Hollander speaking about Frost’s “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” for example), or a question that the teacher asked, or an insight or wise remark that I remembered, or the trust I felt when approaching the teacher with an idea, question, or problem. It has nothing to do with rapid group work or the appearance of interaction. It has everything to do with a shimmering and elusive conversation, something that does not leave me.

I admire both books and am grateful for their existence. I do not wish to suggest that Delbanco favors group thinking; that would be incorrect and unfair. We all have to find our way through “innovations” and decide slowly what to make of them. Some are too recent to allow for definitive judgment. But this subtle difference between the two books is not trivial. In college and elsewhere, conversation often takes place in a group setting, but it cannot be subordinated to the group. It must retain the soleness and attention of a person alone with a book: a mind enlivened and fortified, tasked with living up to what it has learned.

For an index to the nine pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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