“That boatman am I”

floydsrowFor the past four days, at the ALSCW Conference, I have been in my element: presenting poems and papers, listening to others, leading seminars, participating in other seminars, and conversing seriously and jovially about literature. The talks, poems, fiction, music (including Floyds Row, pictured here), and keynote speech woke me beyond the usual waking and dreams.

It wasn’t just a matter of intellectual thrill. Here was a chance to go back to past readings and memories, learn about works I had not yet read, take in cadences and inflections, and participate thoroughly. I heard people read their own and others’ work; speak on Homer, Euripides, Pindar, Ovid, Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, Rilke, Woolf, James, Milton, Orwell, Hardy, Housman, Shakespeare, Stickney (from whom the title of this blog post comes), and others; and point out details, meanings, structures, and gestures. I read two poems (“Afternoon Visit” and “The Nose’s Arrest“); presented on Gogol’s “The Nose,” my translation of Venclova’s “Pestel Street,” and Cortázar’s “Final del juego“; and led a seminar that burgeoned into discussion (during the session and afterward).


Now back to the book and the books. I start the tenth chapter this week.

Let Daydreaming Daydream


Painting: “11” by Karen Kaapcke, an entry in the 2016 Atlas Art Contest.

I have written about daydreaming numerous times (see here, here, here, here, and here in the blog, see here in Republic of Noise, and see my story “The Diagnosis“). I have daydreamed all my life; since infancy I was able to absorb myself in something simple for hours. I was kicked out of ballet class at age six because I would dance around the room instead of following directions (and was completely unaware that I wasn’t following directions). I was terrible at sports involving quick reactions, because my mind was on other things.

Generally I like being this way. It slows me down but also allows me to play with ideas, words, sounds, images. I am usually working on a story in my head over a period of months. It may not be anything I write down; I simply enjoy working out the details and carrying it in my mind. At other times, I work on projects or just let the thoughts wander.

All of this goes to say that I have some experience with daydreaming. Usually, when I read discussions of it, I find that they are slightly on the wrong track. They seem to focus on how daydreaming helps or hinders productivity (or so-called “creativity,” which is usually meant as corporate creativity). This carries two questionable assumptions: (a) that mental processes are valuable only insofar as they serve productivity (and so-called “creativity”), and that if we just found that key to productivity and creativity, people would be ever so much more productive and creative.

So it was somewhat refreshing to see Emily Reynolds’s New York Magazine piece “Everyone Should Make More Time for Daydreaming.” After that iffy title, the piece hit some good subtleties. Challenging the assumption that daydreaming is “a waste of time,” Reynolds cites some research and commentary suggesting otherwise, and goes on to say that daydreaming takes different forms, some helpful, some not. But not all daydreaming has to boost your output, she notes:

But this isn’t to say that you should reframe daydreaming as a “productive” activity, one aimed at particular or favorable outcomes. “Positive constructive daydreaming need not have a goal,” Kaufman agrees. Whether you do it mindfully or mindlessly, it’s worth spending a little time each day imagining the world beyond the present moment.

All fine and well, except for two things. First, there was really no need to cite Kaufman here; is the idea to give her statement a kind of scientific glow? Something from Dante or Emerson (for instance) might have worked better.

Second, I am not sure that daydreaming should be practiced deliberately. That seems to turn it into something else. Reynolds advocates some kind of “mindful daydreaming”–a combination of whimsy and awareness–but isn’t that already second nature to some people? If people set out to do this for the sake of becoming more creative, wouldn’t that corrupt the endeavor?

There is something wrong with the search for a “key” to creativity (or productivity). The people clamoring for it are not typically yearning for more poetry; no, they want more creativity on the job, in the service of profit. It is creativity on someone else’s terms. Also, they neglect the interaction of subject matter and creativity. Creativity exists only in relation to something. The best way to increase your creativity is to immerse yourself in that subject. You will start thinking about it, playing with it, imagining its possibilities, daydreaming about it. You won’t get there by trying to become more creative.

In his scathing (and brilliant) article “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank writes that “the literature of creativity [is] a genre of surpassing banality” in that it exemplifies conformity, not creativity, and is directed not at artists, musicians, actors, and writers, but at the professional-managerial class. Reynolds’ piece certainly doesn’t fall in this category, but it could step more boldly outside the trend.

In short: It’s good to recognize that daydream is not just a waste of time–that it is essential to some natures and endeavors. But there’s no need for daydreamer-chic, daydreamer mindfulness training,  or Amazon (Inc.) treehouse daydreaming sessions. Let daydreaming do what it does best: take its own way.

The Secret to Education

rainydayThe Secret to Education … that One Thing that will Change Everything … the Great and Shocking Truth … one by one, I reject these titles, until I finally pick the first, just for fun.

It is a dim and rainy day (photo taken just now); before I take off for New Haven, where I will be spending the afternoon and evening, I thought I would put together some thoughts on teaching.

I taught for approximately nine years in New York City public schools: first at a middle school in Boro Park Brooklyn (for three years), then at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn (for one year), and then, for the last five years, at Columbia Secondary School, where I served first as curriculum adviser, then as philosophy teacher and coordinator.

In addition, I taught for several years in other contexts. I taught first-year Russian at Yale for a year (as a graduate student), second- and third-year Russian at Trinity College in Hartford for a year (as a Mellon Fellow), and literature for six consecutive summers at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (This is ongoing.) Finally, I taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a summer and taught elementary enrichment summer school on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

So, after all this time (which pales in comparison to many teachers’ experience), what would I say that our schools need? I say emphatically that there is no one answer. None! I have no secret, no great solution.

Or rather, if there is one thing schools need, it’s good judgment: the ability to recognize good curricula and practices and apply them discerningly.

One truth presents itself again and again: teaching requires focused, quiet thought, which the school systems do not emphasize or honor. Yes, teachers need to collaborate, but to do so well, they also need to think about the subject on their own. This has little room in the school day; if you want time for quiet thought or focused study, you have to find it on your own.

Nor is “more time” the answer; there has to be a strong understanding of what that time is for. A teacher’s work must be perceived as intellectual. For that to happen, there must be more time for intellectual life overall. That will not come overnight, nor will any one reform bring it closer.

With all my skepticism, I do have a few ideas. They are not mass solutions, but they could set an example for many.

I would start with a good curriculum: that is, not a script, not a pacing calendar, but an outline of the concepts, works, and problems to be studied, along with the major assignments and projects. I would find schools willing to adopt the curriculum and education schools willing to base their program on it. This curriculum is not meant to be constricting; rather, it builds flexibility, as it gives everyone a working base.

Prospective teachers would begin by studying the actual subject matter of the curriculum (before thinking about how to teach it). They would learn it backwards and forwards, pose questions about it,  give presentations about it, and attend lectures and seminars. They would study their own subject matter and another subject (and possibly a third). Those already familiar with the subject matter would study it at a higher level.

The following year, they would translate the curriculum into lesson plans, practice giving lessons, and serve as student teachers at participating schools. They would not have to reinvent the wheel year after year; if lesson plans already exist, they might review them and modify them for their own teaching. They would develop more than one way to teach a given topic and would anticipate student questions and errors.

Then, when they entered a school, they would be well prepared to teach not only the subject but the actual curriculum itself. They could put their efforts into their new responsibilities.

Of course there are problems: what  if there aren’t enough education programs or schools? What if some district mandate comes along and topples  the curriculum that was constructed with such care?

Any number of things can go wrong; this is no magic solution. Still, I see promise in (a) having prospective teachers focus first on subject matter, then on curriculum and pedagogy and (b) having schools and education programs work with a shared curriculum. To some extent, this is the approach of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center and (in a different way) the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Such an approach takes time, but this is precisely the right kind of taking of time: going far into subject matter and figuring out how to bring it to students.

In This Grand Primordial Mess


Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.

Chicken Coop for the Egg-gineer’s Soul

These are my  former students; as for the chickens, I saw them when they were just hatched (and as they grew). What a beautiful project. If you wish to donate, go right ahead!

Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

Gradus ad Parnassum

gradusadparnassumI took this picture yesterday in Fort Tryon Park; it is one of my favorites. It made me think of a book I loved in childhood: The Study of Counterpoint, from Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. The book teaches you counterpoint through a dialogue between teacher and student. Step by step (with some leaps and longer views), you learn the principles and practices.

I am not especially systematic when it comes to learning new things or advancing my knowledge. I like to plunge in at a much-too-difficult level and figure things out. But even that requires a sequence; I find myself going as far back as necessary to basic concepts and then working toward the problem at hand. I enjoy finding out again and again that it can be done—with languages, music, mathematics, and even human conundrums.

Here is the beginning of the dialogue in The Study of Counterpoint:

       Josephus.— I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
       Aloysius.— You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
       Joseph.— Yes.
       Aloys.— But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor? You are indeed taking on yourself a heavy task, a burden greater than Aetna. If it is in any case most difficult to choose a life work—since upon the choice, whether it be right or wrong, will depend the good or bad fortune of the rest of one’s life—how much care and foresight must he who would enter upon this art employ before he dares to decide. For musicians and poets are born such. You must try to remember whether even in childhood you felt a strong natural inclination to this art and whether you were deeply moved by the beauty of concords.

Once Josephus convinces Aloysius, the instruction begins.

Today the idea of inborn talent is unpopular—but Aloysius’s point is not that talent rules over all, but rather that the hard work of music requires great and strong desire. It can’t be a passing whim or a light interest.

On the other hand, once you have committed to the ascent, all you have to do is ascend, step by step, over many years. It doesn’t matter if sometimes you rush ahead and then backtrack, or pause for a long time at a given level; even then, you lead your life on the stairs.

Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.

School Visit

rehearsalYesterday afternoon I stopped by Columbia Secondary School, where I taught and advised from 2011 until last June. I stayed for a few hours, talked with many people, and dropped by a vocal rehearsal of In the Heights (pictured here). I had a chance to hear about philosophy classes, the musical, students’ college applications, and much more. I miss the school but do not regret leaving to write my book; so far it has been one of my best years. There was something moving, though, about seeing my former students in their senior year (and some in their sophomore and seventh-grade years), arrayed with new choices, ideas, and dilemmas.

I spoke with colleagues about their philosophy classes and heard about the little changes they have made to the courses. That’s the great thing about leaving a school or other place: not only does life go on without  you, but it takes new and interesting forms. It would have done so anyway, but my absence catapults things a bit, I think. The changes are subtle and make complete sense; as I listened to my colleagues, I thought, “But of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” But that’s the point: I didn’t, and they did.

There is a paradox of home: in some cases, when you leave it, you become more part of it, as though the absence were a kind of dwelling.

What Does “Predict” Mean in Research?

In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy says,

Nalini Ambady, a researcher at Tufts University, shows that when people watch 30-second soundless clips of real physician-patient interactions, their judgments of the physician’s niceness predict whether or not that physician will be sued.

This is quoted all over the place, yet I have been unable to track down the study. Maybe it is unpublished or in press, or maybe it is published under a title that doesn’t mention physicians or videos.

In the meantime, I wonder whether Cuddy might have conflated two separate studies by Ambady: one of surgeons’ tone of voice (2002), and another of soundless clips of teachers (1993).

But my greater concern is with the word “predict.” As Cuddy puts it, the “judgments of a physicians’ niceness” actually predict whether or not that same physician will be sued in the future. To determine this, a researcher would have to follow the physicians over the long term and compare their subsequent lawsuit patterns (if any) to the initial ratings.

That would be terrifically difficult to accomplish. First, doctors with malpractice litigation histories are a small percentage of the whole, so the sample size would be tiny. Second, how long do you wait for a doctor to be sued? Two years? Five? Ten? Indefinitely?

Instead, I suspect the study followed a procedure similar to that of “Surgeons’ Tone of Voice.” (If I find out I am wrong, I will post a correction.) That is, the ratings of the videos were related to doctors’ existing lawsuit history. If there was any prediction, it was retrospective; as the authors state in the surgeon study, “Controlling for content, ratings of higher dominance and lower concern/anxiety in their voice tones significantly identified surgeons with previous claims compared with those who had no claims” (emphasis mine).

Why does this matter? There’s a big difference between predicting past and future events. People are easily dazzled by the idea that a thirty-second video clip (or sound clip, or whatever it may be) can predict a future lawsuit. The idea that it might predict a person’s existing history is perhaps interesting (if it holds up under scrutiny) but less dazzling.

When it comes to doctors, I imagine those with a lawsuit history might be a little grumpier than the others. I can also see how tone of voice could affect patients’ sense of trust and comfort. But I know of no study that demonstrates that ratings of soundless video clips of physicians predict whether they will one day be sued.

To avoid turning scientific research into a magic show, use the word “predict” carefully and precisely. Also, give a little more detail when referring to research, so that those interested can look up the study in question.

Update: I just learned that Ambady died in 2013. See the comments below. Thanks to Shravan Vasishth for the information.

Another update: Thanks to Martha Smith for explaining various  kinds of “prediction” in statistics. (See here and here.)