Mourning: Together or Alone?

Over the past few weeks, I have been pondering two pieces: “Grief in the Digital Age” by Elise Italiano (Acculturated, August 1, 2014), and “The Problem with Collective Grief” by Arnon Grunberg (New York Times, June 21, 2014). I would not say that they contradict each other; they are on different tracks. Yet in combination they raise a question: are private and communal forms of mourning at odds with each other? (I separate mourning from grief; mourning includes ritual expressions of loss, whereas grief consists of the raw emotion.)

Elise Italiano explores how “status updates,” “selfies,” and other digital communications affect both private and communal grief—for instance, at Ground Zero, where one is surrounded by people sending tweets, talking on cell phones, and taking pictures of themselves. She finds this phenomenon profoundly isolating—as it separates people not only from each other, but also from solitude.

Arnon Grunberg describes the Dutch fervor over the downed Malaysian airplane (193 of those killed were Dutch). He perceives the calls for collective mourning as nationalist in essence and responds, “The sad thing about mourning is that it really is quite unshareable, that it involves an extremely individual emotion. People have the right not to show their emotions and not to share them, even when it comes to soccer and calamity.”

Both are right. Grief and mourning are highly personal, but there’s nothing intrusive about establishing a place or time for mourning. To the contrary: such places and times allow the private mourning its own stretch.

Take a place like Ground Zero. If cell phones and other digital devices were not permitted at all, then there would be fewer distractions—and both solitude and companionship would be possible in a way that they are not now. (Visitors are not supposed to make or receive cell phone calls inside the museum itself—but they are allowed to take pictures with their cell phones.) True, people would object to such a prohibition; many feel that they have the right to use their devices. But the loss of such a right would be outweighed by the increase of respect.

Something similar can be said for times of mourning. On one level, mourning cannot be timed. It comes when it comes, and goes when it goes. On the other, a person participating in ritual mourning need not display or force private emotion. The ritual mourning makes room for the private mourning, even if the two do not coincide.

Collective mourning can be constricting and oppressive when it lays claim to private emotions. But when it does not lay such claim, it dignifies the privacy. To mourn with others in a time and place—even if my mourning is out of sync with theirs—is to set aside the distractions and dishonorings, together, for a while.

Much of what we mourn is not recognized. I may mourn someone who is not a family member, or someone still alive but gone from my life, or something as seemingly mundane as a misunderstanding. All of these relate in some way to death, but they may not get a funeral, or I may not have an official place in them. The formal mourning makes a possibility for those (people and mournings) that have no place.

If I step into formal mourning, even clumsily, then I participate in something beyond my own impulsive sadness. I learn history; I temper my urges. If I accomplish this, the impulsive sadness takes its time and shape but also remembers others.

If I can mourn in an allotted room, on an allotted day, then I can carry such a room into other days, or such a day into other rooms.

“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 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 furniture; there’s something beyond what humans know and see. The juxtaposition, too, is interesting: 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.

Don’t Criticize–Retire!

One of the most disturbing traits of our era is what I would call “age nationalism”–a belief that if you do not support the more recent innovations, whatever they may be, you are out of step with the times and should go away.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Conn, a professor at Ohio State University, criticizes colleges’ current tendency to hold students’ hands and tell them exactly what they need to do to get that A. He cites the “writing rubric” and the endless “learning objectives” as examples of this trend.

I support his viewpoint. The pros and cons of rubrics aside, I was struck by the snide tone of many of the comments on Conn’s article. Their attitude was, “Rubrics are what we do now, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be teaching.”

Here’s a quote from one such comment:

It’s not exactly clear why he went into teaching. –Sounds more like he wanted to get paid for reading his favorite books and discussing them with students who can process those books unassisted. The (educationally) rich just get richer.

Dear me. So a professor who expects students to come to class prepared–who expects them to be able to read and write and study–must be elitist and spoiled?

Here’s another comment (quoted in full):

I found myself, by the end of the article, hoping you would retire soon from teaching.

A rubric sets guidelines and documents expectations. It’s not an “outline” nor is it there to promote grade inflation. What you confuse as helicopter teaching is sound practices. A rubric provides the student with an assurance that you are organized.

If you were employed outside your safe ivory tower, and in the real world, you would see that the rubric you so disdainfully snub as making soft students is really management by objectives (MBO). It’s how people retain their employment.

What is this? A professor who doesn’t think in business terms (e.g., “management by objectives,” or MBO) is supposed to retire from teaching? Who will question the jargon, then? Apparently no one–for in this person’s view, the “real world,” or his version of it, has the final say.

There are many more in a similar spirit–and others that are more courteous, and still others that corroborate the author’s points. But what stands out is these commenters’ insistence that someone who questions the current trend should not be teaching at all. The reasoning, apparently, is as follows: “Teaching is X; Professor Conn does not seem to exemplify X; therefore, Professor Conn should not be teaching.” They do not stop to ask whether teaching really is uniformly X, and whether they can judge, on the basis of an op-ed, whether or not Professor Conn exemplifies X.

Long before rubrics entered higher education, there was a difference between small liberal arts colleges, which prided themselves on their nurturing atmosphere, and large universities, which emphasized scholarship. Many institutions sought and found a middle ground: a research institution with support systems for the students, or a college that fostered outstanding research.

When I was a high school student considering colleges, I wanted anything but a college that would coddle me. I applied to two universities, early action (Harvard and Yale); got into both; and chose Yale on the basis of visits, course syllabi, conversations, and instinct. I stumbled at various points in college–but that was part of growing up, intellectually and emotionally. Those were not grade-crazy days; getting a C on a college paper was considered a worthwhile experience.

Today we hear a lot about “grit” and the “importance of failure”–but students also hear that a B in high school–or any kind of lopsidedness–will limit their college prospects. They are told to take risks, but–as a recent fifth-grade test passage put it–to learn to be “smart” risk-takers, weighing the pros and cons of the risk in advance. One can try to avoid senseless, ill-conceived risks–but there’s really no such thing as smart risk-taking. It’s a contradiction in terms. A true risk involves the unknown, sometimes a lot of it. I remember, about 18 years ago, when a friend was going to Bulgaria for the summer. At a sendoff dinner, someone asked him what he hoped to get out of his trip. He replied, “I don’t know. That’s why I’m going.”

One has to have seen a different era to recognize that many students today are afraid of being on their own, afraid of anything less than an A, afraid of not knowing exactly what is expected of them. Not everyone is afraid; I see some students forge ahead with less concern about their grades than about what they learn. But they come under continual pressure to think and act on others’ terms.

The comments quoted above show hostility to intellectual independence–both that of the professor, who is putting forth a legitimate view, and that of the students. I do not mean that that any objection to his view is hostile. It is possible to defend rubrics without telling him to retire, or without insinuating that he is out of touch with the “real world” and clinging to some fading dream.

The “real world” is not what any particular group decides it is. It is continually tested and approximated. Those who put forth unpopular views, or who question current trends, are themselves affecting the real world by stretching the bounds of the possible.


Note: I previously referred to the professor as Steve Conn–but see that his byline is actually Steven Conn. The error is now fixed.

Homophonia and Parekbasiphobia

This is now a well-known story (and no hoax): Blogger Tim Torkildson was fired from his position at Nomen Global Language Center, Utah’s largest private English as a Second Language school, for posting a piece about homophones on the company’s website.

Homophones are words with like sounds and different meanings, such as where/wear, or/oar, and pair/pear. They may have the same spelling (for instance, rose/rose).

A post about homophones is entirely appropriate for the website of an ESL school. But Clarke Woodger, Nomen owner and boss, told the Salt Lake City Tribune that “people at this level of English … may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.”

Well, and so what if they did? They are learning English, correct? They would soon learn what “homophones” actually were. In addition, they could learn the meaning of the prefix “homo-.” Part of the point of learning a language is learning what words and their parts actually mean–not staying stuck in what you think they mean.

If you avoid the very sounds of words because of their possible associations, you will end up in a verbal noose. But that’s only part of the story. Woodger’s greater concern–as reported to Torkildson and to the Salt Lake City Tribune–was that Torkildson was going off on too many tangents in his posts, and that he therefore couldn’t be trusted. This post on homophones–a wild digression, in Woodger’s view–was “the last straw.”

If we look at this story in terms of a fear of tangents and digressions (which I will call parekbasiphobia, as parekbasis is Greek for digression), then Woodger’s complaint is typical of a larger tendency in education.

Since my entry into public school teaching in 2005, I have seen widespread distrust of digressions. Teachers themselves understand the value of digressions–allowing a conversation to take an unexpected direction for the sake of larger understanding, or even for sheer fun. But policymakers and teacher trainers see it otherwise: to many of them, if you stray from the point for even a few seconds, you are wasting precious instructional time. You may be robbing children of the opportunity to meet the stated objective and thereby to achieve measurable progress.

One of the first “inservice trainings” I attended included a presentation about sticking to the point. “We want our lessons to go straight to the objective,” the presenter said, “not where our own imagination takes them. We want to be like this”–here she made a gesture of straight motion–“and not like this” (a gesture of a zigzag).

One of my greatest teachers, the poet John Hollander, showed us in lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar, what digressions could do. There was no imitating him–in no way could his teaching be a “model”–but I would not trade a single one of his lectures for something that stuck strictly to the point. For Hollander, the point itself was multifaceted; to understand it, one needed to take excursions into etymology, history, architecture, music, and more.

Now, how do I reconcile a defense of digression with my insistence that focus is essential for learning? On the surface, it seems that these two principles contradict each other, but they do not. There is a big difference between digression and all-out distraction. If one is attentive to the topic at hand, one can move this way and that within it. How and when one does so will depend largely on the situation. Not all digressions are helpful, but some may open up insights into the lesson’s central questions. You can miss the point by sticking too rigidly to the point.

By contrast, what doesn’t count as focus is a willful inattention to a lesson or topic–a preoccupation with one’s iPhone, or with the latest social gossip, or with the homework for the next class. Now, some would argue that such “distractions” should be made part of the lesson–that instead of battling them, teachers should welcome them and search for their inner meaning. On the whole, I disagree. There is a simple practice of setting aside one’s own immediate preoccupations for the sake of something else. If students (and teachers and schools) do not develop this discipline, they will be at the mercy of their urges and impulses.

But once the general focus is established, there’s room for a great deal of adventure. Just how much, and when–that’s a matter of judgment, and judgment is at the center of a teacher’s practice. Take away judgment, and you take it all away.

In fretting over Torkildson’s “tangents,” Woodger may seem ridiculous–but he represents a current of our time.