In Praise of Lingering

fort-tryon-6Our culture extols “moving on”–that is, putting the past behind you, dropping all negative influences from your life, and steamrolling your way into satisfaction. Yet neither lingering nor “moving on” is inherently good or bad; both can participate in virtue, and both can be taken to extremes. Of course it isn’t helpful to hold on to an old grudge or wait for someone who has willfully left your life. But there is a place for memory and waiting; maybe it’s just a little place–a rock out in the woods–but still a place, and worth a pause.

In a stunning interview with Joe Fassler (in The Atlantic), George Saunders, whose novel Lincoln in the Bardo came out this week, speaks about the unsettlement of fiction–with particular attention to Anton Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Saunders understood Chekhov for the first time when hearing Tobias Wolff read three of his stories aloud:

I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.

It reminds me a little of what I heard yesterday in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (I went to an open rehearsal at the New York Philharmonic). It is described as parody–and indeed there’s a great deal of that–but there’s also something soulful, something that doesn’t let you put it aside. Here’s a video of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing it. You might end up listening to it again and again.

Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” seems to be saying one thing about happiness–and then, as Saunders points out, it takes a turn, but not just one. Even the digressions, even the passing details, have something to do with happiness. One tone turns into another. The story within a story lets us think, for a while, that we know what the story is, only to find out later that we do not.

In a very different (and ferocious) way, this happens in Saunders’s story “Winky,” which he does not bring up in the interview. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it–but it starts out with a cult approach to happiness, in which, to attain “Inner Peace,” the willing must identify the human obstacles in their life, erect protective barriers against them, and confront them with this new state of things:

“First, we’ll identify your personal Gene. Second, we’ll help you mentally install a metaphorical Screen over your symbolic oatmeal. Finally, we’ll show you how to Confront your personal Gene and make it clear to him or her that your oatmeal is henceforth off-limits.”

This is so ridiculous (yet recognizable) that we know it will break down somehow. But what makes this story stand out (not only among stories, but in my life) is the poetry of the breakdown. I am left with a little ache; instead of feeling vindicated, of being reassured that this stuff is as stupid as it sounds, I am brought into something more important, where I am not entirely justified or right. I can’t just walk away; I have to stop for a little bit.

Near the end of the interview, Saunders says, “Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think.” He adds that it’s impossible to dwell there forever–but even a few minutes can do tremendous good.

To boot, insistent, dogmatic “moving on” can do great harm. If we not only march forward in brazen confidence, but also look down on those who linger and question, then we stigmatize conscience itself. I have seen this happen a lot, not only on the political front, but in everyday contexts: people say, “move on, move on,” implying that those who pause, even briefly, are doing something wrong or, worse, standing in the way of progress.

Lingering is not inherently good either; all depends on its form and meaning. But just a little bit, a hint of “maybe I was wrong,” could offset some of the cruelty in the world and open up the imagination.

Photo credit: I took this picture a few days ago in beloved Fort Tryon Park.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Why Won’t You Follow My Script?

doubtingcatI read Harriet Lerner’s Why Won’t You Apologize? in a sitting (with some skimming). It contains some reasonable advice here and there, but overall I found it skewed and opinionated. As I read further, I become more and more a Cat of Doubt, gazing off into the distance.

It starts out on a reasonable note; she offers a “sorry sampler,” a basic taxonomy of apologies ranging from the mildest to the most severe. I think: Yay! Here’s someone who sees gradations! Here’s someone who distinguishes among the vastly variegated versions of everyday life! But then she proceeds into her main argument, and my stomach sinks:


  1. If your apology isn’t perfect (on Lerner’s terms), it’s no apology at all. To make a perfect apology, you must take full responsibility for your actions, with no “buts,” contextual explanations, or uncertainties. (If you happen to be uncertain, just make yourself certain.)
  2. Forgiveness is overrated–and it’s not binary. You can forgive someone 90 percent but keep the 10 percent of anger. (Go for it! Keep that anger!) What’s more, there are other ways to feel better about the past. You don’t have to forgive. What you want is your own peace, and you can get it.

Why does she hold the offending party to the most uncompromising standards, and the offended party to no standards at all? Why does she present apology as “all or nothing” but forgiveness as piecemeal and inessential?

She does invoke some subtlety by advising readers to “lean into generosity,” by describing scenarios where people gradually work their way into the right words, and by acknowledging, here and there, that not all situations are alike. In addition, she makes a good case for a pure apology where such apology is appropriate.

All the same, this book has flaws of foundation, reasoning, and result.

Flaws of foundation: The book draws primarily on her own observations (from clinical work and personal life), a few cartoons, and a handful of other sources. A vast literature (of philosophy, history, poetry, drama, fiction, theology, psychology, linguistics, and other fields) goes unexamined. Even the endnotes are sparse.

Example: In the section “No One Definition of Forgiveness Fits All,” she observes that some people confuse forgiving with letting go. That’s a good point. But instead of considering what forgiveness might be, instead of taking up the topic seriously, she focuses on ways of letting go, implying that that’s what people really want when they talk about forgiveness. In fact, people may just as badly want a restored relationship or a chance to demonstrate goodwill.

Flaws of reasoning: She seems to assume that (a) there is usually a clear, defined offense at stake and (b) the parties are in a speaking relationship. From there, she casts her own (questionable but unquestioned) interpretation on the scenarios she presents.

(In reality, many situations are unclear at the outset and can arise from simple misunderstandings: for instance, in email or texting, which often lack tone, continuity, and completeness. These fragmentary communications can tempt people into apology guesswork, which does not help anyone involved. The recipient of the “guesswork” gets irritated, and the apologizer bewildered.)

Example: She describes an incident at an airport where, during a long wait for a rental car, she unthinkingly gave some candy and nuts to a little girl, in the mother’s presence. The mother said nothing about it, but Lerner kept thinking of apologizing and finally did so. The mother replied, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it.” She (Lerner) took this as the ultimate simple, gracious acceptance of her apology–but maybe the mother was thinking, “No one ever apologizes to me. It’s nice to have that happen for a change.” Or maybe: “I’m too tired to think of an answer, so I’ll thank her.” Or even: “I don’t want to get into it.” Over email, the words might have been even more ambiguous.

Flaws of result: Her ideal apology (presented several times, in various wordings, over the course of the book) does not always seem appropriate.

Example: She describes a situation where her friend invited her to her book release. She traveled from Kansas to New York–at considerable expense–for this occasion. At the party, she found herself absorbed in conversation with one person (whom she knew); two hours went by, and the two didn’t notice that the company had moved into another room for toasts. They didn’t join the toasting until the ritual was halfway through.

After she had returned to Kansas, the friend called her in anger. How could she have behaved so thoughtlessly? How could she have ignored the other people and the toasts? Lerner began with an “I’m sorry but…” and followed it with an “I’m sorry you were so upset.” A few days later, she called her friend back to offer a “genuine” apology–this time without qualification.

Whether this was right or wrong depends, of course, on many things. But should one have to apologize for something that was neither ill-intended nor inherently offensive? If she had been sitting in a corner glaring at everyone, or if she had been gossiping or showing off, that would have been a different matter;  but from what I can tell from the story, she came to the party to support her friend. There is no crime in getting absorbed in a conversation. If the host wished to involve everyone in a toast, she could have given a clear signal. I do not think it would have been wrong to say, “I think there was a misunderstanding. Let’s sort this out.”

In some situations, I have imagined an offense where there was absolutely none intended; it meant everything to hear, from the other person, “That’s not at all what I meant; here’s what was going on.” An apology would have actually confused things, since it would have affirmed the hurt. Once I understood what had happened, I was no longer upset.

When something goes wrong between two people, they can speak about it. They don’t have to follow a script; while avoiding finger-pointing, they can say what they wish to say and listen to each other. Lerner’s book ignores the possibility that people can use their own words and minds–and draw on resources other than her advice.

Image credit: Someone made this beautiful cat sculpture in Fort Tryon Park. I took the photo.

Note: I made some edits, and then some additions, to this piece after posting it.

Cura te ipsum

self-portrait-with-the-idol-jpglargeWe hear the sayings “Physician, heal thyself” (from Luke 4:23) or “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” from Genesis Rabbah 23:4. Self-help is not an industry; it’s part of life. No matter what our age (beyond, say, age 3), profession, or situation, we not only solve many of our own problems, but figure out some of the solutions. In doing so, we may draw on all sorts of advice or wisdom from the near or distant past, but we decide how to apply it.

The self-help industry, then, is misnamed. It isn’t about self-help at all; at its worst, it is about selling you a product that supposedly will help you. To sell it, the creator or marketer tries to convince you that it’s better than anything else out there and that it addresses the problem in a novel way. This involves ignoring or dismissing (or simply not knowing) past wisdom.

Let me backtrack: I see two kinds of books that aim to help you find your way through life. One kind is a book of knowledge or wisdom; it draws on what has been known and said and does not promise you any big or swift answers. It leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. The other kind excludes previous wisdom for the sake of appearing new or original. Here the point is not to give you perspective but rather to put forth a particular idea, program, product, or plan.

This explains, in part, why some self-help literature, and the journalism surrounding it, pays little or no attention to philosophy, literature, or even classic psychology. Oblivion blows a blizzard over what has been said before. In her New York Magazine article “Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State,” Cari Romm writes,

Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

Wait a second–who says we haven’t been asking ourselves about the nature of forgiveness for very long? Just look up “forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will see a long and detailed entry, with reference to works through the centuries. But there’s much more, even in the psychological literature. Jung wrote extensively on confession (and the accompanying forgiveness); other scholars around the turn of the twentieth century began examining the psychology of religion, which included concepts of forgiveness. (See, for instance, Edwin J. Starbuck, “Contributions to  the Psychology of Religion,”The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 9, No. 1 [Oct., 1897], pp. 70-124.) It is true that psychologists have been studying forgiveness more intensively than before, but the topic is by no means new.

I have not yet read Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? in full, but it seems to dispense too readily with forgiveness. On p. 54, she writes: “Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness. Others do not.” In other words, she seems to suggest that its value is relative. In an interview with Forbes, she says, “We do need to find ways to protect ourselves from the burden of carrying anger and resentment that isn’t serving us, and to grab some peace of mind. We can achieve this with or without forgiveness.” This ignores one of the main virtues of forgiveness: it helps reestablish some form of relationship, even a silent one, between the two people (and even between them and others). Sure, we can “grab some peace of mind” elsewhere. But isn’t there more at stake?

Her book (which I will read) is not the point here, though. I take issue more directly with Romm’s article and with the widespread practice, especially in so-called self-help literature, of exaggerating the newness of an idea. When it comes to books of wisdom, I trust and respect those that acknowledge what has come before, even if they proceed to question, criticize, or overturn it.

Romm’s larger argument in the article (and Lerner’s, which she cites) is that people mistakenly see forgiveness as binary: Either you forgive someone entirely, or you’re caught up in bitterness. But this simply isn’t true; there have been subtle discussions of forgiveness over the centuries.

Forgiveness involves coming to see another person, an injury, and one’s own anger in a much larger perspective–and, from there, restoring some kind of relationship, even an unspoken one. (I think of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.”) Such forgiveness is not always possible or desirable, but there are reasons why people long for it and seek it out. This is no pathological inclination, unless human connection is now deemed a disease. In that case, empty the libraries and close down the theatres. Declare language defunct.

Image credit: Paul Gaughin, Self-Portrait with the Idol (1893), courtesy of WikiArt.

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

The Clasps of Creativity


People often associate creativity with big ideas, but it is often found in centimeter-sized details. In an earlier post I discussed how creativity involves tinkering with subject matter; here I will look at how it thrives on the small scale, in the realm of hinges, clasps, and other parts.

The above picture (which I took at home) shows three objects–two book stands and a pair of AN-6530 goggles–manufactured by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., founded by my great-granduncle Charles Fischer. He was about fourteen when he came with his parents and seven younger siblings to New York City from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). In 1906, after working as a toolmaker and spring-maker, he founded his company in Brooklyn and employed a few of his brothers. My great-grandfather worked for him as a bookkeeper, I believe.

The two book stands clasp onto the knee, so that your hands are free when you read; the AN-6530 goggles were produced during World War II for Army and Navy flight crews. After one year of use (in 1943), they were superseded by rubber-framed, plastic-framed goggles (since mass production of plastic had become possible in the interim, and plastic lenses were much safer).

Many of Charles Fischer’s inventions pertained to goggles; he had several patents for goggles themselves, and others for goggles’ hinges, clasps, bridges, and seals. His goggle clasp (Patent No. 2,126,379), filed in 1937 and patented in 1938, improves upon existing clasps in ways that he carefully lays out.

claspHere’s a photo of the AN-6530 clasp (at least on my own pair). I have looked at pictures of others; the clasps are similar in form. You can see that they require twisting a piece of wire. As we know from experience with hangers (for instance), if you twist the wire too much, it breaks.

That is exactly the problem that Charles Fischer sought to address. (Note that the AN-6530 goggles came well after his invention but stuck with the earlier clasp.) In his patent specifications, he explains:

Heretofore, the head band has carried a thin light open ring which was passed through the ears of the frame and then twisted by pliers. The twisting of the ring strains it and crystallizes it. Thereafter, the stresses to which the ring was sub­jected imposed further strain and led to break­age at the point of twisting.

Here’s how he resolves the problem:

The possibility of the head band clasp breaking or working loose from the goggle and the result­ing inconvenience and perhaps danger to the user, is avoided by the clasp shown in Figs. 2, 3 and 4, in which a strap 23 is provided, slotted at 24 to receive one end of a head band 25. The strap has a forwardly extending pocket 26, the strap and pocket being stamped from one piece of metal. Passing through the sides of the pocket is a pivot pin 27, and a strong hook 28 is pivoted on this pin. As illustrated, pivot pin 27 is arranged off-center, i.e. below the central horizontal plane of the pocket and below the line of force acting on hook 28. This arrangement results in the hook being securely locked to the frame when in closed position. In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws. When the hook is open, as shown in full lines in Fig. 2, the jaws act to hold the hook up and in a position which facilitates the passing of the free end of the hook through the perforated noses of the frame. When the hook is closed, the jaws give way to allow the hook to pass and then spring back behind the hook. Also, as shown, the extended lip 30 of pocket 25 is adapted to be engaged by and serve as a stop for the free end of hook 28.

That may seem a little confusing until you match it, number by number, with the diagram:
goggle-clasp-imageNow it’s evident that this new clasp resolves the problems of the previous one. There’s no twisting of wire, no loose ends, no strain on the materials. What’s more, it involves a kind of spring: “In addition, the upper sides of pocket 26 are pinched at 29 to provide a pair of spring jaws.”

I don’t know why this clasp wasn’t incorporated in the AN-6530 model. His patent was issued a year before the outbreak of World War II. Maybe his inventions didn’t get enough attention; maybe they were considered too expensive.

My point is that our discussions of creativity tend to miss the mark. There’s creativity in the spring jaw and pivot pin of a goggle clasp–yet when people speak of creativity, they disregard those beautiful little parts.

Charles Fischer died almost two decades before I was born, so I had no way of meeting him. Only one of his siblings, Emanuel, survived into my lifetime; he died when I was about four, and I knew nothing of his existence. My great-grandfather Max died four years before my birth. I wish time could be compressed so that I could ask them questions. I sense enjoyment in Charles Fischer’s descriptions; I imagine that he loved explaining them to people who showed interest.

There may be far more creativity in the world than people imagine. It may be found in the particulars, in the subtle reworking of words, sounds, and springs. The current focus on big ideas detracts from creativity itself. Or to put it bluntly: creativity means nothing in the abstract. It has meaning only in relation to specific form and matter.

Image credits: I took the two photos. The patent image can be found on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website.

Note: I made some edits to this piece–and added two sentences to the end–after posting it. Also, I changed the title.

Days of Joy



I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.


One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

The Humanity and Humanness of Apology

fort-tryon-1Every once in a while, a piece pops up about the “right” and “wrong” ways to apologize. A new one, by Jane E. Brody, appeared today in the New York Times and followed the same pattern. I have copied my comment below (with a few minor edits, which I have indicated in bold). Overall, while the article makes some good points, its dogma gets in the way. After the block quote, I will explain where Brody’s argument becomes too rigid.

This article contains one essential piece of wisdom: that apologies should be sincere, unfettered, and brief. Beyond that, though, the author went too far in putting forth a formula.

In Jewish law [I said “tradition,” but it’s actually law, with qualifications], one is supposed to ask three times for forgiveness; if one does not, one has not done one’s part. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes of this in Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 2:9-10. According to some, though, a person should ask for forgiveness only twice, since the third request would oblige the other person to forgive. In any case, the act of asking opens the door. At the same time, one should not view those “three times” as foolproof. This is a human gesture.

But what if you do not know exactly what you did wrong? Should you avoid “I’m sorry if” and force an interpretation onto the situation? Or should you instead offer a preliminary, tentative, qualified apology, with the understanding that you will make it more concrete when you understand more? An apology should be truthful; if you do not know the truth, are you supposed to pretend? Is it not better to show your uncertainty?

Moreover, we are all fallible, as are our apologies. A slightly misworded apology should not be cause for a sneer. (“She said ‘if.’ Ha! That shows what kind of person she is.”)

In short, while there are right and wrong forms of apology, an overly strict formula can actually stand in the way of right action and feeling. [I would revise this last sentence but am letting it stand, since I make my points below.]

Brody begins by distinguishing easy apologies from difficult ones–and suggesting that in the latter case, the wording makes a great difference: “Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship.”

But she then goes on to describe an apology that, according to the psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, she (Brody) performed perfectly. The result, too, was perfect. Homemade jam and friendship.

So what do the rest of us mortals do wrong? She loses no time in getting to our errors.

First, she says that the apology should be brief, sincere, and unfettered. When people qualify their apologies or focus on the other person’s feelings, they are avoiding their own responsibility. There’s no disputing this, except that sometimes we don’t know exactly where we went wrong or how the  other person felt. Ideally an apology is “unfettered,” but not all circumstances are ideal.

Second, according to Brody and Lerner, a request for forgiveness should not be part of the apology. I find that much too dogmatic. In asking for forgiveness, I can show humility and acknowledge the mutuality of the situation. I have hurt you, and I am now also hurt by this rift. Of course a request for forgiveness should not be pushy–but if you do not include it, it may be unclear what you actually want. The other person may think no reply is needed.

The offended party, she says, does not have to forgive (that is true); he or she can do something relaxing instead. She quotes Lerner: “There is no one path to healing … There are many roads to letting go of corrosive emotions without forgiving, like therapy, meditation, medication, even swimming.” Granted, but isn’t forgiveness preferable, when possible? If you have received an apology and are capable of forgiving, is it just as good to go to a spa?

But all of this seems tangential to an essential point that Brody does not make: Whenever possible, an apology should involve face-to-face conversation or some other human dialogue. Maybe a letter initiates it. Maybe a long, involved conversation is unnecessary. Maybe it takes thirty seconds to make up. But the people should have a chance to hear and see each other. If they cannot meet in person, they can approximate the meeting in the mind and heart.

This is especially important in our internet-run era, where many conversations take place by email, texting, or other “messaging.” It is as difficult to convey your intent by email as it is to understand someone else’s. Face-to-face conversation, or even a phone call, can clear up a thousand misunderstandings in a minute.

In the absence of conversation, a letter can become an impossible performance, especially if you are supposed to say everything just right, and especially when expert after expert lays out the “do’s” and “don’ts,” essentially encouraging the offended party to judge and dismiss the apologizer. Get those words right, says Brody, or you may cause lasting pain. And then it’s your fault!

That, in my view, goes against the very spirit of apology, which involves recognizing oneself and another as human.

Note: I made some minor revisions to this piece after posting it–and edited it again later. The substance remains unchanged.

The Serious Center of Things

ribbon-cuttingI suspect that most fads start with a good idea that then gets twisted or overblown. Similarly, within any fad there are people who work discerningly and unfaddishly. The challenge is to perceive the good work in the mud-flashy mix. (Yes, mud flashes; that is its great selling point.)

I have sometimes satirized the trend on college campuses to have a Center for Best Practices (or Second-Best Practices, for that matter). So on Friday, when I attended the Grand Opening Ceremony for Yale’s newly located Center for Teaching and Learning, I was delighted to see something serious and substantial in the works. I then asked myself what made this center different (in my perception) from the larger trend. I remembered Andrew Gelman’s recent post on the importance of understanding our own contradictions and inconsistencies.

First, I have seen Yale from the inside for many years–as an undergraduate, full-time staff member (during my years off), graduate student, and writer. (I lived in New Haven and used the Yale libraries when writing Republic of Noise in 2009-2011.) When I know something from the inside, I am more likely to perceive the non-ludicrous within it. I remember the passage in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (where we are first introduced to Jude’s son, Little Father Time):

In the down-train that was timed to reach Aldbrickham station about ten o’clock the next evening, a small, pale child’s face could be seen in the gloom of a third-class carriage. He had large, frightened eyes, and wore a white woollen cravat, over which a key was suspended round his neck by a piece of common string: the key attracting attention by its occasional shine in the lamplight. In the band of his hat his half-ticket was stuck. His eyes remained mostly fixed on the back of the seat opposite, and never turned to the window even when a station was reached and called. On the other seat were two or three passengers, one of them a working woman who held a basket on her lap, in which was a tabby kitten. The woman opened the cover now and then, whereupon the kitten would put out its head, and indulge in playful antics. At these the fellow-passengers laughed, except the solitary boy bearing the key and ticket, who, regarding the kitten with his saucer eyes, seemed mutely to say: “All laughing comes from misapprehension. Rightly looked at there is no laughable thing under the sun.”

I remember pondering those words in high school and for many years afterward. They seemed both true and not true at the same time.

stained-glassOn Friday I had a poignant sense of the “inside”: the CTL is now located where the Catalog Department used to be–where I used to assign call numbers to books, day after day. In those days we still used the card catalog but were moving to an online database. I saw many changes in the works but did not anticipate that the space would one day be a bright, roomy, variegated center for tutoring, presentations, meetings, practice with technology, and much more. Some of the old details–like these stained-glass windows–still remain. The back door–through which we entered in the morning–still has a plaque that says “Private–For Staff Only” (or something like that).

The tour guides spoke thoughtfully when taking us through the rooms. They emphasized repeatedly that the technology was there to assist professors and students with what they were trying to do–not to get in the way or dictate what they should do. No one was obligated to use technology just because it was technology. But there are rooms where professors and other instructors can try things out before taking them into the classroom.

music-librarySo I was influenced by the quality of the tours and conversations. In addition, Yale has long emphasized the life of the classroom. From Timothy Dwight’s lectures (transcribed by his devoted students) to the residential college system to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and Education Studies program, Yale’s emphasis teaching stretches far back in time and outward into public schools.

This does not mean that Yale is protected from fads and faults; not at all. Yale needs sharp skeptics and questioners as much as the next being or building does. I simply mean that there is something promising at work, something that seems to cut through the usual jargon. I think of Chapter 85 (“The Fountain”) in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael hypothesizes that the spout of the whale is “nothing but mist”–and adds that “from the heads of all ponderous profound beings … there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam.” He concludes the chapter memorably and funnily:

While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor –as you will sometimes see it–glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Image credits: I took all three photos on Friday, January 27. The third photo is of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, which adjoins Sterling Memorial Library and the Center for Teaching and Learning.

A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

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

Are Meetings Dominated by Three Talkers?

loud-talkerIn my work experience, the most satisfying meetings have been the ones with substance and purpose, led by a wise moderator. While I do not take such meetings for granted, I would not call them rare exceptions to a grim human rule.

Supposedly “research shows” otherwise. According to Susan Cain, “there’s research out of the Kellogg School recently that showed that in your typical meeting, you have three people doing 70 percent of the talking.”

Now, I have been to meetings where I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, but this figure makes little sense. What is a “typical” meeting? How could one possibly arrive at a specific percentage, given the variety of meeting sizes, atmospheres, structures, purposes, and contexts?

Cain’s statement has been quoted on and the Campus Technology website, neither of which provides a research source. Fortunately the Quiet Ambassadors brochure does: “Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management.” That is the entire citation. There’s no reference to a particular work.

I looked up Thompson’s statements on this subject. In her book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), on p. 128, she claims that in a four-person group, two people do 62 percent of the talking; in a six-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking, and in an eight-person group, three people do 70 percent of the talking. (She gives the same figures in a article and approximates them on the Kellogg School of Management website.) She implies that as the group size increases, the main talkers make up a smaller percentage of it.

This is a far cry from saying that in a “typical meeting,” three people do 70 percent of the talking. But even her statement seems dubious. Where do her figures come from? In the endnotes to Creative Conspiracy, she cites M. E. Shaw, Group Dynamics: The Psychology of Small-Group Behavior, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1981), p. 170. The title suggests that the research, conducted over 35 years ago, pertains specifically to small groups, not meetings overall. In fact, these small groups may have lacked a moderator; I will look into this when I get a chance.

I support structuring meetings so that those who wish to speak, can. But why make a weak case for this? Why throw around misleading figures and statements?

This is not an isolated instance. Again and again, I see figures used out of context. Cain has asserted repeatedly that “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert.” This was based on a small and vague study (of 91 teachers of unspecified subjects and grade levels). Others have claimed (see the article’s bar chart) that 96 percent of managers and executives display extraverted personalities, a statement needing severe qualification. These figures suggest a dire situation where the extraverts run the show and the introverts (although supposedly making up 50 percent of the general population)* get overlooked and ignored. Statement after statement, figure after figure misrepresents the research, which itself has limited implications.

One can promote thoughtful discourse in the workplace without resorting to flashy figures. The moderator–in many cases, the manager–can set the tone by ensuring, first of all, that the meeting is about something. Then she can lead the discussion, drawing out contrasting ideas and helping to reconcile and synthesize them. Over time, she can relax her role, as others will take part in leading. But when she needs to step in, she can do so.

This takes not just skill but a keen understanding of the relation between topic and form, and an alertness to those present (and absent). Some discussions will be swift, others lengthy; some require only two contrasting views, whereas others benefit from subtleties and variations.

The quality of a discussion has little to do with the number or proportion of people talking; a discussion with just two conversants might cover what people want to say, while a discussion with twenty voices might end up going nowhere. If the tenor of the discussion is thoughtful, and if the moderator and others guide it well, the meeting will not come to ruin, nor will souls be shouted down. But above all, there should be something worth talking about, and the participants should take it up with intelligence, ear, and candor.


*The percentage of introverts depends largely on how you define and test introversion, how you distribute the data, and where you draw the line.

Image credit: Doug Savage, “Loud Talker.”

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

The Benefits of Complex Mindsets

hesse-steppenwolfIn a 2015 commentary in Education Week, Carol Dweck acknowledges that she and her colleagues may have oversimplified “growth mindset” and ignored the mixtures of mindset in all of  us:

My colleagues and I are taking a growth-mindset stance toward our message to educators. Maybe we originally put too much emphasis on sheer effort. Maybe we made the development of a growth mindset sound too easy. Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too.

I commend her for this acknowledgment and would take it a step further. I suggest that the concept of “growth mindset” is inherently limiting: that while we benefit from the awareness that we can improve, we actually employ, in all our work, a mixture of fixity and growth. Growth mindset does not exist as a discrete phenomenon, nor would we be better off if it did.

Before explaining this, let me clarify that I am not dismissing the importance of openness to improvement in oneself and others. When we see humans as fixed, we are likelier to demean or overpraise them. So-and-so is “so amazing” or utterly beyond hope. I know what it’s like to have someone latch onto something I said in a difficult moment, and remind me of it again and again over the years, as though that utterance encapsulated me. I also know what it means to expect myself to perform brilliantly–not just well, but brilliantly–and to disparage myself when I did not.

But as soon as I look beyond those extreme examples, I see a more complex picture. In particular, I see how a degree of “fixity,” mixed with “growth” and other attitudes, could help a person accomplish good things. Moreover, there is some fixity inherent in any growth.

First, from elementary school onward, we decide where to direct our efforts. Yes, we all have to do our schoolwork, but beyond that, when faced with many possibilities, which ones do we select? Some–not all–of our decisions will take our abilities into account. If I must choose between gymnastics and a musical instrument, and if I love both but am much better at one, I will probably choose that one.

Now, I might choose to continue pursuing both, or to fight my limitations and pursue the less “natural” course–but even there, I will take my abilities into account. No matter what the ultimate choice, it involves a degree of “fixed mindset”: the acknowledgment that we have more ease with certain pursuits than with others. (This does not mean that, in choosing them, we avoid challenge; to the contrary, we may open ourselves to higher levels of challenge.)

Second, even within a chosen field we employ “fixed mindset” when choosing direction. Suppose I am working on a poem, and it is not coming out right. I could try and try to improve it, or I could scrap it and start a new one. Both choices have a place. Sometimes a poem has some promising elements but needs work; sometimes it is flawed from the start. The ability to say “this is going nowhere”  actually allows me to try something else. Something similar could be said for a scientific theory or pedagogical approach. Giving up is not always wrong; it can allow for an opening.

Third, as I have mentioned before, a “fixed mindset” may come from a sharp vision of excellence. When we see ourselves falling short of it, we may question our work and withdraw for a while. Within measure, this can actually do good. I see where I am, and I see where I want to be; the gulf tempts me to give up. I think of giving up, wrestle a bit with the temptation, go to sleep, wake up, and continue onward. Everything is informed by the vision and the questioning. If I had not thought of giving up, if I had not struggled a little  with the temptation, my continuation would have less meaning.

My point here is not to glorify “fixed mindset” (God forbid) but to suggest that we work with a mixture of growth and fixity and other things. The challenge is to find the right mixture. I remember a novel I loved as a teenager:  Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Here  the saxophonist Pablo is rearranging the pieces of Harry Haller’s (the protagonist and narrator’s) personality:

With the sure and silent touch of his clever fingers he took hold of my pieces, all the old men and young men and children and women, cheerful and sad, strong and weak, nimble and clumsy, and swiftly arranged them on his board for a game. At once they formed themselves into groups and families, games and battles, friendships and enmities, making a small world. For a while he let this lively and yet orderly world go through its evolutions before my enraptured eyes in play and strife, making treaties and fighting battles, wooing, marrying, and multiplying. It was indeed a crowded stage, a moving breathless drama.

Then he swiftly sweeps the pieces into a heap and starts over with a new formation.

Although somewhat quaint, the image of Pablo and the pieces evokes a wisdom that I miss: the wisdom that we are made of many elements, that we carry vast combinations, and that, instead of pushing ourselves into one “mindset” or another, we can make the most of the mixture.


Note: Please see my two previous posts on this topic: “The Fixed Mindset of ‘Growth Mindset’” and “Are Mindsets Really Packageable?