TEDx Video Coming Soon

The video of my talk at TEDx Upper West Side is now complete and will be uploaded soon. The title, “Take Away the Takeaway,” is the working title of my forthcoming book.

senechal_tedx

“A Time When I Can Think Slowly Through Things”

Last spring I went to the New York Philharmonic to hear Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Carter Brey was the soloist; his rendition thrilled me with its subtlety and dialogue. (For years, Rostropovich’s interpretation was by far my favorite; Brey’s went beyond it.) I went back a second time, for the final night, and was sorry I couldn’t go back again.

So I was delighted to find a video clip of the New York Philharmonic rehearsing the concerto in Costa Mesa. The clip is much too short (just a fraction of the second movement), and I wish that the video editor had shown more of the musicians instead of including those city views. Even so, it’s great to watch and hear. The duet with Eileen Moon is gorgeous, and those few seconds of rehearsal accomplish and convey a lot.

While on this search, I found two excellent interviews: one with Noah Rothbaum in Runner’s World and the other with Tim Janolt for the Internet Cello Society. There are many more, but I had to limit myself. These two are full of interesting things. Brey describes running as “a time when I can think slowly through things.” He says of Laurence Lesser, his first cello teacher in college, that “his most valuable gift was showing me how to think for myself in order to find solutions to technical problems in a non-dogmatic manner.”

Here’s a quote from the first interview:

Is Bach better to listen to before running or Beethoven?
For a classical musician, great classical master works don’t really work as background music. We all find that when restaurants put classical pieces that we know on as soft background music, it’s a tremendous annoyance to us because we just want to stop and listen. The volume is usually just below the threshold for you to hear clearly. We find it annoying and offensive because this is music that wasn’t meant for background music. So it depends on what you need. If you’re really in the mood to concentrate on something that’s complex, that has certain surface complexity, then I’ll put on a piece of classical concert music. If I need something mindless to get my spinal cord going then I’ll put on pop music.

Hear, hear! And from the second:

TJ: How does one shift “in character” with the music?

CB: When shifting between two notes, many cellists tend to be on the late and fast side, which may serve musical purposes at times, though it often doesn’t. This kind of shifting is more utilitarian, merely getting from point A to point B, since it is but one of an infinite number of ways of going between two notes. It’s better if you can more consciously decide how much of a slide you want to hear. If you want to hear more of a broad-reaching kind of slide, don’t shift so late; leave the first note earlier so that there’s a more vocal effect in getting to the goal note. For wonderful examples of this, listen to the great singers, like Jessye Norman and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who were also great influences on my development.

I look forward to reading more, but much more than that, to hearing more.

On Beginnerhood

kayaking

Yesterday I went kayaking again and managed to take a photo from the unusually tippy boat. The first time I went, I was charging ahead with confidence; this time, I wobbled and veered. I can blame the boat, but the truth is that I don’t have technique yet. The first boat was more forgiving. (Two very kind volunteers gave me  a little lesson; by the end, I was making good progress.)

Having been a beginner at many things, from languages to electronics, I can speak to some of its joys:

In a short time you can move from knowing nothing to knowing something (and seeing that there’s still much more to learn). That can be exhilarating.

You can usually do something with what little you know. That includes thinking about it. This means the mind has more good things to carry around.

Initially, there’s a certain charm in ineptitude, and others treat it generously.

Then come the drawbacks:

The charm of ineptitude fades quickly; after that, there’s nothing but excellence to strive for, and little chance of reaching it.

Beginners struggle to perform even simple tasks, like rowing, saying a sentence in a new language, or playing a simple melody. More work for less beauty doesn’t seem fair.

For the most part, beginners know that they can progress if they practice long and well. It may take considerable time. Perpetual beginners have chosen, in some way and for some reason,  not to take on that commitment. This can be embarrassing to admit.

All that said, it’s good that there’s room for beginners, even perpetual beginners, in the world. There’s only so much that we can do well, and it would be a shame to give up the rest. I may never be an expert kayaker, but I hope to go out on the water many more times in my life.

Anger Endangered

Last spring, in political philosophy class, my students and I discussed Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “behavior has replaced action as the foremost mode of human relationship.” After analyzing it in context, we considered whether it held true today. A few students commented on the pressure to be pleasant all the time. One student defended this state of things; he thought good behavior had benefits for all. Others saw a loss. There was little room, they said, for emotions and thoughts that stood out, such as anger.

What is anger? It is a reaction against some kind of wrong or injustice. At its best, it helps sort good from bad, right from wrong. Yet it often turns into violence or muffles itself into vague hints. It is not easy to get anger right.

A few decades ago, “anger management” was in the air—but something more like anger wisdom is in order.  We have, on the one hand, a workplace of niceness (where people join a “team” and get along), and on the other, a cyberspace of insults and dismissals. Anger has been bent out of shape, yet its literature has verve.

In Book 4, Chapter 5, of his Nicomachean Ethics (translated by W. D. Ross), Aristotle writes:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis writes that when Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883) first started learning Mussar (a tradition of practical wisdom in Orthodox Judaism), “he became angry at the world but remained at peace within himself. As he studied further, he also became angry with himself.  Finally, he evolved to judging others favorably.” (I will read the original source as soon as I can.)

Both Aristotle and Rabbi Salanter see anger not as emotion alone but as emotion combined with reason. Anger can go right or wrong, depending on how one directs it. To use it properly, one needs  full education. The right use of anger can be the  project (or one of many projects) of a lifetime. One might begin with anger at the world, like Rabbi Salanter, or with anger at oneself; either stance is provisional. Ultimately one comes to see human fallibility.  Anger becomes less necessary overall. It doesn’t disappear; instead, it reserves itself for the most appropriate occasions. The remainder turns into empathy.

For anger to do good, a few conditions must be met. (These are my own thoughts on the matter; I hope to develop them over time.)

First, the angry person must identify the cause of the anger and decide whether it’s worth a fuss. If not, the  person should drop it altogether. If so, he or she should bring it up in appropriate circumstances.

Example: Say you are going with a friend to a concert, and the friend meets you late, making you both late for the performance. If this is a unique occurrence, it might be worth letting go; if it happens more than twice, it is worth mentioning.

Second, the person must be able to articulate the reason for the anger–clearly, calmly, and promptly. Vagueness and evasion do no good.

Example: Your co-volunteer in the public garden has been short with you lately–and when you finally get up the nerve to ask whether something’s wrong, he says, “never mind; it’s fine.” If it’s fine, then fine; that should be the end of it. But if it isn’t fine, then different words are in order. For instance: “Recently I have been showing up at 9, which is when our shift starts, and then working by myself for at least an hour until you show up. This isn’t working for me; let’s figure out a better arrangement.”

Third, the angry person should be willing to listen to the recipient of the anger. Otherwise what is the point of expressing it at all? To get it out of one’s system? Possibly–but people are not liver cleansers. The real point is to lift the level of justice, even slightly. That takes more than one person.

Anger-wise, I am far from perfect; I can tip away from or into it. I try, though, to approach it strongly and give it proper form. Like many, I fear being rude, but that’s like the fear of playing out of tune. Ultimately you have to play out your thoughts. Kindness can be true and clear.

 

Note: I added to this piece after its initial posting.

The Cult of the Spiffy Solution

Just as the world is made up of two kinds of people–those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not–so it is divided into those who want spiffy solutions to complex human problems and those who do not.

Why, in our era of self-help, TED, and aggressive innovation, would anyone not want a quick solution to a persistent human problem? Why would anyone cringe at the assertion, “One tiny change can revolutionize your life”? Well, some do.

Perhaps we suspect that the assertion is false, and perhaps we wouldn’t even want it to be true. The first possibility is a little easier to explain, so I will tackle it first.

People who propose some seemingly simple solution are often trying to sell it. That is, their solution comes with a book, a program, a product. They not only divulge the solution but take on the role of master coach. This tends to interfere with their ability to criticize their own solution. They have a great stake in promoting it, and they get attention, praise, and money for doing so.

A case in point (one of many examples): Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, claims that we can change our body chemistry and our behaviors just by changing our posture (that is, by adopting “power poses“). She cites her own research and the research of others in support of this theory.

Her TED talk is listed as one of the most popular of all time. It is already media, but the media lapped it up, in a typical gesture of self-potation. In this talk, she claims that a change of posture–adopted right now–can change the trajectory of your life. She begins: “So I want to start by offering you a free no-tech life hack, and all it requires of you is this: that you change your posture for two minutes.” She ends:

So I want to ask you first, you know, both to try power posing, and also I want to ask you to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life.

Share the science! Yet when Eva Ranehill and others attempted to replicate her research, they found that power poses had no effect on hormonal levels or any of the behavioral tasks. (They did effect people’s self-reported feelings of power.)

In a Slate article, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung criticize the overall lack of suspicion around Cuddy’s theory and others like it. While not blaming Cuddy herself (or any particular reporter or media outlet), they warn against fuzzy acceptance of so-called “science” (which may be no more than a popular theory that feels good and has some basis in anecdote). Gelman (of whom I am becoming a cautious and questioning fan) is even funnier and more caustic in his own blog post on the subject.

There is every reason to doubt the “power pose” theory and others of its ilk. It’s good to have good posture; this is no innovation. One can strive for good posture, and enjoy its benefits, without pretending that it will catapult every one of us to power.

Now I come to the second point: I wouldn’t even want this thing to be true. Granted, what I want to be true shouldn’t affect what I think is true. Yet it often does; I must always be vigilant about the spill of preference into perception. The question then is: What accounts for the difference between those who want the “power pose” theory to be true and those who don’t?

I don’t want it to be true because I don’t want to be reduced to a success cartoon. Suppose power posing did change hormonal levels and increase risk-taking. Suppose those changes led to power positions, power lunches, power dates. All that power would get boring, and the substance would seep away. I would go on a long search for someone not entirely self-assured and an occupation that did not require constant flashes of confidence.

I don’t mean that others want to become auto-CEOs; I don’t fully understand the allure of the quick “scientific” fix. It seems to skip over two challenges: understanding science itself (at least enough to evaluate the research) and dealing with the complexities of life. Maybe there is relief in that.

My preference matters only in that it leads me to question the notion of power as ceaseless good. Even in a job interview, one does not want to project power from start to finish; a wise employer (for a worthy job) would rather see a competent, thoughtful person. If we are tilting toward a culture of “power impressions,” maybe it’s time to take a few decades, or even a century, to correct that tilt. That one century could change a life.

 

(Update: For some uproarious evening reading, see “NO TRUMP!: A Statistical Exercise in Priming,” which Gelman co-wrote with Jonathan Falk.)

To Gather Around a Book

red book

(Gathered around C. G. Jung’s Red Book: Dr. Larry Allums, Dr. Joan Arbery, and I. Thanks to the Dallas Institute for the photo.)

This summer, for the sixth time, I had the joy and honor of serving on the faculty of the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (It was my fifth summer as full faculty member; in my initial, “junior faculty” year in 2011, I mainly observed but also gave some morning remarks and an afternoon lecture.) What makes this Summer Institute stand out, or one of many things, is its focus on literature itself. We alternate between epic (in even-numbered years) and tragedy and comedy (in odd-numbered years); in epic summers, we read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Mwindo, Monkey, parts of Popol Vuh and Paradise Lost, and numerous poems, essays, speeches, and other works–all of this in three weeks. Jennifer Dubin’s article “Promethean Summer” (American Educator, Spring 2014) describes the program vividly.

Although the reading is intense and the course very short, we have room to discuss the works in depth–precisely because of the focus. I cherish the substance of the course (the works themselves), the practice of coming together over literature, and the beautiful concentration. I hope to continue on the faculty for many more years.

Now I have turned my attention to my book, as well as college recommendations and two papers for the ALSCW Conference (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers). The book’s working title (which may change) is Take Away the Takeaway (the title of the talk I gave in April at TEDx Upper West Side, the video of which should be available sometime this month).

I know that I will miss my school this year, but it is a privilege to be able to focus on writing (and one or two other big things, including a course I will take this year in advanced cantillation). Focus and stretches of time are some of the greater goods of life; to some degree they can be found in any given moment, but they also depend on the structures of our days. For years I have been building this structure; now I get to live in it for a while. I hope to do it justice.

Gratitude, Cultivated and Wild

fort tryon park july 2016

I dislike the gratitude of platitudes. I sympathize with those who resist obligatory gratitude; I resist it too, or at least I have in the past. The perfunctory thank-you card fulfills a duty but may lack some spark. Yet raw, unbidden gratitude has its problems too; it depends too much on momentary passions. It’s easy to pour gratitude into one thing or person and ignore another; this turns into self-will and self-satisfaction, a far and whooping cry from gratitude at its best. So, over time, I have come to favor a mixture of the cultivated and the wild. True gratitude, at once genuine and responsible, does exist.

The photo above (which I took yesterday evening in Fort Tryon Park) has more of the cultivated; the one below (which I took in June), more of the wild. Or maybe that is an illusion; maybe they both contain both in similar proportions. In any case, when I walk there, I sense intense gratitude of many kinds around me. People come to pause, to take things in. They walk their dogs, run up the steep hills, bring easel and paint, take pictures, recline on a lawn or bench, engage in a fencing match, or just walk empty-handed and think. The park has its troubles; there have been robberies and other crimes. Walking there too late or too early is not wise. All the same, it is a magnificent place, and the regulars, staff, and volunteers help protect it.

On another note: the short film “The Tale of Four,” directed by Gabourey Sidibe, is filming in my building, just down the hall from me. The premise is promising (it’s based on Nina Simone’s “Four Women“), and I look forward to the film.

fort tryon park june 2016

Why the Teacher Diary?

I recently came upon my first published education op-ed, “Learning from Parents.” It appeared in the New York Teacher in March 2007 (the spring of my second year of teaching) under the pseudonym “Otter.” The editor had encouraged me to use a pseudonym, not because my piece was in any way incendiary but because this was common practice for the “New Teacher Diaries” section, in which my piece appeared.

I am grateful for that first start. I soon decided, though, that I  did not want a pseudonym and did not want to be a teacher diarist. Now and then I do write about something that happened in the classroom or in my teaching life. But I stay away from the teacher diary formulas.

I know of no other profession that expects its members to write public diaries about  why they entered the profession, why they left, what makes it so hard, what makes it  so wonderful, etc. I think of musicians, writers, actors, dancers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, translators, scholars, rabbis, priests, and others; if they keep diaries, it is by individual choice. Only teachers have a ready forum and a set of prefabricated formulas for tales of classroom life.

Now, some teacher diaries offer insights that no study or report could approximate. They abound with wit and truth. But to have your teacher-diary published, you need only do the following, or something similar:

  1. Provide a standard title, e.g., “What No One Told Me About Teaching”;
  2. Make a vague reference to research (e.g., “Research tells us that 50 percent of teachers leave within the first five years”);
  3. Tell a classroom anecdote that connects to the title (this is the “diary” part);
  4. Offer a few bulleted takeaways;
  5. Include the title in the final sentence (e.g., “What no one told me about teaching is that it has to be learned.”)

The same goes for pieces titled “Why I Am Leaving My Teaching Job,” “Why I Am Not Leaving My Teaching Job,” “My Advice to Teacher Newbies,” etc. Why the demand for such pieces? I don’t know the answer but have a few thoughts.

First, there’s a genuine need for insights into the classroom. Although we all supposedly know the classroom (having spent a chunk  of our lives in one), we don’t understand what teachers do until (a) we become teachers or (b) we listen to them.  There’s a need for this information.

Second, education has been subjected to some unhealthy mystification. The “great teacher” and “bad teacher” are continually pitted against each other in pseudo-eschatological combat; it’s refreshing to hear from an actual person now and then.

Third, teachers welcome an outlet for thoughts. The school day is full of rush with little room for steady thought. A teacher diary assignment can offer an opportunity to assemble experiences and ideas.

All that said, I sense something less benign at work here as well. There’s something subtly condescending about the teacher diary format. It suggests (to the teacher and the world), “You, teacher, are best suited to writing from the first person, about your own experiences, because that’s what you know best.” In other words: stay in your little sphere of self; do not dare to speak about a field or idea.

As a result, the teacher diary often wraps itself in the coy gauze of “me and my own.” Many such pieces go “viral” now and then; few have lasting quality. Of  all the teacher diaries I have read over the years, maybe five have stayed with me. This has more to do with the mini-genre and its expectations than with the writers.

I would advise any ambivalent teacher-diarist: Do not confine yourself to this format. If it suits you, work with it, but be ready to break away. There is power in speech that finds its own form and in silence that comes from dropping the unneeded.

 

 

Endings and Unendings

Graduation goodbyes can be tricky. This afternoon I spoke with an alumna who attended the Philosophy Roundtable last  night and returned again today for the International Celebration. We talked about two simultaneous truths. On the one hand, there’s no such thing as goodbye, at least for the living, because there’s always a chance (big or small) that we will cross paths again. On the other hand, to diminish  a goodbye is to diminish everything. At times we must leave a person, place, practice, or idea behind. This allows us not only to go forward but to gather up the meaning of the past.

In the languages I know, there is more than one word for goodbye. The more casual the expression, the less final the goodbye; the more formal, the more final. (In English, we have “see ya” on the one hand and “farewell” on the other.) This suggests to me that farewells contain something serious and unpopular. That does not automatically make them truer than their casual counterparts–but they need to be heard with full ear.

Should a high school treat graduation as a “goodbye” or as a “poka” (Russian for “while” or “later”)? Some might argue for a balance of the two, but they don’t balance. The goodbye is heavier and needs its weight. How do you say, “Goodbye; you’re welcome to come back” without taking away from the goodbye? To do this, you must acknowledge that the goodbye could be final. This might mean, “Goodbye–if forever, best wishes to you; and if not forever, likewise all the best.”

The needs of school and students may diverge here, though. A school needs its alumni; they offer continuity and wisdom (and, at private schools, financial support). When students return to speak of their experience, the school gains a sense of meaning. Yet a school needs a sense of departure as well; while students leave, the school continues on and must turn its attention toward the ones who are there. Alumni, for their part, need a combination of departure and return, which varies from person to person and changes over time.

So in schools and individual students, there is need for both return and departure, for “see you later” and “farewell.” Schools may pull toward the former and students toward the latter, but in any case they are distinct goodbyes, each with its form and meaning.

 

Note: I added to this piece after the initial posting.

 

 

Have We Given Up on Conversation?

The other day, on the train, I was sitting next to two teenage girls who were talking with such shrieks in their voices that I thought, “why so loud?” Then I glanced over and saw that both were wearing earphones and had music playing. That is, they were talking over the music playing into their ears. They probably had no idea how loud they were.

Then I transferred to an express train and witnessed the same thing, all over again, with different teenagers. I suppose this is a trend.

But my complaint here is not about teenagers or technology. On a much larger scale we are giving up conversation: letting it be interrupted, drowned out, and compromised. Technology has something to do with it, but we ourselves are to blame for not defending our conversations more staunchly. The wish for a conversation can come across even as an affront: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I would like to talk with you.” For the sake of clarity and focus, I will consider one-on-one conversations only.

First of all, why are conversations important? They allow for more than the “exchange” of ideas, information, feelings, and experiences; through a conversation, you take another into yourself and are changed as a result. You hear things coming from a mind different from your own; not only the words but the gestures play a part. Nothing like this is possible in group discussions, which have their own purposes and possibilities.

The kind of conversation I describe above used to be a staple of my life. It is now a rarity. Why?

First, we have given in to the interruption. I remember the common practice (and etiquette) of returning to a conversation after it has been interrupted, of picking up right where it left off. Today that is considered not polite but brazen; one is expected to honor the interruption and let the conversation go. Broken off in mid-sentence? Oh, well! You would be a fool to resist that.

Second, we have come to exalt the group over the pair. Suppose you are in conversation with someone, and someone else comes along and joins in. Of course, even in the best of circumstances, one should be as gracious as possible: welcome the third person into the discussion for a little while, change the topic accordingly, and so on. Graciousness is one thing—but what I see today is indifference. Group discussions take over because no one acknowledges a loss in this. The group (or dreaded “team”) is the ultimate formation; few go against it or defend anything outside it.

Third, we are too nervous and jumpy to focus on dialogue. We think we might be missing out on some important email or other update. People can go only so long before checking their handheld devices. This is the issue that people often emphasize, but it’s part of a larger phenomenon.

Fourth, we distrust the desire for a true connection. The person who wants to be our friend must be lacking a “life.” The “normal” person is scattered, well-connected, and casual—and sophisticated enough to distrust the concept of sincerity. If there’s no such thing as a “good person” (or, for that matter, an “interesting person”), then those offering or seeking individual attention can be blithely dismissed.

Oh, lighten up! some will say. Have a bit of humor. It isn’t that bad if you can laugh. True, but the best wit comes from relation, from laughing with another about something or laughing at oneself with another. Take away the relation, and what wit is left? Some slapstick, maybe; some puns; some political humor; but not the deeply funny, not the convulsion of the soul.

What is the cause of all of this? There are many, but I would blame our acquiescence first and foremost. We do not protect our conversations. It’s easier and more stylish to let them slip away.

I say “we,” but I am divided. I both participate in this and resist it, as many others likely do. The challenge, then, is to gather up the resistance: to dare to speak with another person, just one, for a stretch of time.