Blogging, “Winky,” and More

Blogging is a kind of mental relaxation for me, and a way to start working with ideas that may take a different form later. I have just started to realize how old-school it is. Not that many people blog any more, or when they do, it’s partly to make money. I make no money off of this blog; I pay a little each year to keep adds off of it. I do make money from other forms of writing, but this is a place where I can say what I want, on my own terms and timing, and that’s how I want to keep it.

I have gotten weary of the new economy of punditry. So many people are competing to be pundits, to make ponderous pronouncements about the state of the world, pronouncements aimed at winning followers and subscriptions. Very few of these pronouncements have any lasting quality. The whole thing feels vain to me, and boring. But then, I have my vanities too.

My students (that is, one of my tenth-grade sections) read George Saunders’s “Winky” last week. The other section didn’t read it because we had too few classes left in the year—that is, just one. We have been reading a lot of stories this spring: Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” Alice Walker’s “The Welcome Table,” and now “Winky.” They are so lively and thoughtful in discussion that my planning only goes so far; things come up that hadn’t occurred to me.

It’s hard to talk about “Winky” without giving spoilers. But I’ll try. The story begins at a strange motivational seminar, in which a tacky modern version of a medieval morality tale is playing out on the stage. One of the characters, “You,” is trying to reach “Inner Peace,” but then a number of other actors, including “Whiny,” “Self-Absorbed,” and “Blames Her Fat on Others” get in the way. Finally a GoldHat appears and drags these obstacles into jail. The crowd then bursts into the familiar mantra: “Now Is the Time for Me to Win!”

Then Tom Rodgers, the founder of the Seminars reveals himself and begins telling the audience about how he learned to stop letting people crap in his oatmeal. (This becomes the bizarre ruling metaphor of the session.) Then the participants line up for the Personal Change Centers. Neil Yaniky finally finds himself face to face with Rodgers, who helps him identify the main obstacle in his life—his sister, Winky—and the main problem: “Needs her own place.” Yaniky resolves to go home at the end of the session and tell Winky precisely this.

In our discussion, the students quickly saw through the Seminars and the message they were broadcasting. You can’t just treat people as obstacles in your life, especially people close to you; you can’t solve life problems by cutting people out of your life, sending them away, etc. But they saw this even more when we were taken into the world of Winky.

Winky is unsummarizable. A little bit out there, in her own world, Christian, full of happy fantasies, but also with her shair of pain from being taunted and lonely. We see her catching herself in the middle of daydreaming and realizing she had to get ready for Neil-Neil’s return home at the end of the day. She rushes up the stairs “with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.”

The students saw that Winky adores Neil-Neil, that he is at the center of her world, and that she also takes care of him, cleans for him, cooks for him. One student was very upset by Winky’s Christian faith, her belief that she really should turn the other cheek when people abused her. “How can you let other people bully you and not fight back?” she asked. We talked about this for a while. In the story, it’s complex, because we’re supposed to see Winky’s naiveté, but we also see that she’s happy in her own way.

Neil-Neil has fantasies of his own, as we learn on his way home. A beautiful wife, a Jaguar, a feeling of power wherever he went. But he’s short and bald, and Bev, whom he apparently dated for a little while, left him, so the fantasies are far, far out of reach, except in his mind. But he doesn’t think so as he walks home; he thinks he’s on the verge of winning. The seminar has pumped him up.

And he gets home, and things don’t work out as he planned. But he doesn’t have an epiphany either. I can’t give away the ending. It’s wonderfully mundane and disturbing. I asked the students, why does the story end this way? Why doesn’t it end with him realizing that he was wrong and that he loves his sister?

“This isn’t Disney,” one of them offered.

“That wouldn’t be Neil-Neil,” another said, explaining that he clearly has limitations, and it would be too much out of character for him to have that much insight at once.

Then another student spoke. “I think we all have a little bit of Neil-Neil in us,” he said. We talked about that until the end of class.

And now is it clear why I love teaching at Varga?

We didn’t have time, but I wanted to bring my students an article, in The Economist, about how young adults in the U.S. are increasingly cutting off contact with their parents. At one point the article points to one of the causes (or at least contributing factors): “Those who decide to break off contact with their parents find support in a growing body of books (often with the word ‘toxic’ in the title), as well as online. Threads on internet forums for people who want to break ties with their parents reveal strangers labelling people they have never met as narcissistic or toxic and advising an immediate cessation of contact. This may make it easier to shelve feelings of guilt.”

In my book Mind over Memes I devote a chapter to the word “toxic” and the damage it can do when overapplied. (I bring up “Winky” in the chapter too.) Surely some situations are toxic in some way. But to call people toxic, without first trying to understand what is actually going on, can lead to more harm than the so-called toxicity itself. There are situations in life where you do need to cut someone off, and that may even be a family member. But there are many more cases where you actually don’t—where, through learning to say “yes” and “no,” and through learning more about the situation, you can find a way to relate to each other. It can have limits, it can be imperfect, but it’s still a relationship of some kind.

The fad of cutting off relationships, and justifying it blithely, is nothing short of monstrous.

But “Winky” does much more than teach a lesson, and it leaves a lot unresolved. (The story is not punditry, thank God!) The students were able to take this.

The title of this blog piece promised “more,” but that will have to wait until next time.

Never Forget How to Let Go of a Bad Hypothesis

In blog-land, I know I am an insignificant creature among insignificant creatures. Up goes another blog. Three people read it. There I go posting a comment on someone else’s blog. I put an hour into it, and then look aghast at my day. If blogs get forgotten, blog comments get doubly and triply forgotten.

Not always, though. In late January 2009, when Eduwonkette “hung up her cape,” a comment appeared on her blog. Though anonymous, it clearly came from a wise and knowledgeable person. It is about the importance of admitting that you’re wrong, when you are wrong. (“Eduwonkette” was the pseudonym or “mask” of the magnificent education blogger Jennifer Jennings, now assistant professor in the Sociology Department at NYU.)

I think I was moved to something like tears at the time. Maybe not tears, maybe just a gulp and a lot of thinking. I have thought back on that comment many, many times. I have no idea who wrote it. The person used the pseudonym “Right2BWrong” (just for the occasion, I presume).

I am reprinting it here, with full attribution: it first appeared as a comment on Eduwonkette’s Education Week blog on January 27, 2009, the day after the last day of the blog. I will comment on one aspect of it in a separate post.

Here it goes:

Like everyone here, I am sorry you will not be blogging, but agree that you are making a wise choice. Finishing your dissertation is the key to your future and NYU is not a bad place to make money while you do it.

Since no one else has dared to offer any advice, I will. As you know, anonymity gives people a chance to say what they really mean without the fear of reprisal. So, let me offer this anonymous advice. Whatever else you do with the rest of your life, do not become any of the people your critics once imagined you to be.

As you recall, before your unmasking, many of the people behind the studies and press releases and policy “think” tanks you reviewed tried to guess who you were. What did they guess? Some thought you were a policy wonk whose only interest in data was to score political points. They speculated as to who might be funding you; some wondered about EdWeek’s motivation. Others thought you were a disgruntled DOE employee out to settle a personal vendetta against certain people. Some thought that, given your actual skills with data, you were a tenured academic, an ivory tower radical set to bring down the system without any concern for what might be built to replace it.

These are people who commonly battle it out in educational research “debates.” Is it any wonder your critics assumed you were one of them? But the critics were wrong.

Do you recall what bothered them most? They couldn’t figure out whose side you were on. After all, everyone on both sides of these issues has a vested interest in keeping this battle alive. If schools are not broken, who would be paid to fix them, who would be paid to report that the fix did or did not fix it, and who could build a coalition to fight the fixers or organize those who really believe in fixing? The game is called “cops and robbers.” There is no game called “robbers” because that is not much of a game. But you didn’t want to play the policy game. All you cared about was data.

And you had a secret weapon, the ultimate superhero advantage: Your future and your past were not dependent on the outcome. Consider the work of some people twice your age who have spent a professional lifetime dedicated to a hypothesis that does not seem to supported by the data, most of which has been gathered too late in their careers for them to turn back. Consider the people whose reputations are built on their being the “data guru,” but who you have exposed as being perhaps one standard error below proficient in that role. Even some people your own age are already invested. Consider the work of some people your own age whose dissertations started with a policy conclusion and ended with a lot of data massaging, the numbers caressed until they could provide their funders with a happy ending.

You weren’t invested. You could follow the data. If your hypothesis was supported, you could report that. If your hypothesis was not supported, you could report that. In the blogosphere, you can even publish null results, something not as widely accepted in the academic world.

But soon you will become a bit more like your critics. As you grow in your academic career, you will find that certain results, certain publications, lead to opportunities. A sincere, scientific paper might result in a paid speaking engagement. A line of research on some policy might lead to an offer to head a new research department. In the academy, work that supports the current wisdom will help to secure your tenure. Success supporting a hypothesis may bring offers to edit a journal, write a book, or, who knows, become Dean. Success in the academic world may even lead to offers of much more money from a think tank or policy group, especially for someone who can communicate to a large audience. Oh, the places you could go — with all that money!

Soon, you will enter the world in which your critics live. You have visited many times, but soon you, too, will be a resident. No more green card. Full voting rights. Fully invested in the game.

So, how do you avoid becoming any of the people your critics thought you were? Here is the secret. Never forget how to let go of a bad hypothesis. The world of educational research is full of people who must, absolutely must, be right. Their reputations, their careers, their salaries, their retirement, and their personal relationships — their entire lives are dependent on being right about a hypothesis. Never allow yourself to fall into a position in which you become a slave to a hypothesis.

Years from now, remember that your critics tried to attack you here by proving, just once, that you were wrong about something. Any little analytical error would suffice, even if it was because they had provided you with the wrong data. They thought that by showing you were wrong, they could destroy you. In their world, being right is all that matters, regardless of the data.

The policy wonk, dependent on funders; the disgruntled employee, obsessed with petty squabbles; and the ivory tower radical fighting the system all have one thing in common. None of them can afford to admit when they are wrong. If you think about your heroes, even those who have been in this game for 20 or 30 years, you might realize that they all are people who are still willing to admit when they are wrong. Some of them are blogging, just around the corner…

Remember: Being right is a good defense, but being able to admit that you are wrong is the best defense. It is the secret superhuman strength that all real researchers possess. You have it now. It is yours to lose.

Like others here, I, too, look forward to hearing about your work and hope you will continue to contribute to educational research in the years to come. I hope that you are always right about everything. But the only sure proof that you have not become who your critics wanted you to be will be in the times when you report that you were wrong. I doubt you’ll need to say it often, but you will find a great strength in saying it when you do.

Good Luck,

Anonymous Still 

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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