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.

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.

Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty

In a recent satirical piece, I described an imaginary movie called “Won’t Quiet Down” (a dark spoof on “Won’t Back Down”), in which two disaffected students launch a “student trigger”: namely, they talk nonstop in class until the school, weary of efforts to “engage” them, converts itself into a computer lab without teachers. This was not a commentary on my own students, though some of them do get chatty. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at the consequences of distractedness and disruption in schools and beyond. It was also a parody of propaganda films, so the message was intentionally crass. But it had a serious element.

Incessant talk runs into serious trouble. It can’t honor things, because there’s no “sacred space” for them (to quote someone with whom I spoke recently). There’s no sense of a time for quieting down and listening. Thus, there’s little room for taking anything serious in. Instead, people vie to be heard—but no one’s listening anyway, so no one gets heard. This is an exaggerated representation, of course, but it’s largely accurate.

The problem is not just that people talk, talk, and talk. (Nor is it a problem of extraverts versus introverts, as many who qualify as introverts have a great propensity for chatter.) It’s that there’s so much rush, so much overload of work and information, that people don’t even have a chance to ruminate, to sift through experiences, to read books for pleasure and interest, or to test out ideas. I have discussed this in my book and elsewhere; I see it as one of the primary problems of education.

Teachers and students have little time to think. They scamper from one thing to the next. During the week, I am on a gerbil wheel; I can think of little more than the things I have to get done for the next hour and next day. Over the weekend, I have hundreds of assignments and tests to correct. (I really mean hundreds, since I have about 260 students, whom I teach twice a week.) I love teaching philosophy; at its best, it’s illuminating. Listening to my students discuss the Book of Job, Pascal’s Wager, and Kant’s categorical imperative has given me hope. These kids are reading and pondering the texts and analyzing them keenly.

But what I don’t have, and what they probably don’t have, is time to putter around. (Today’s an exception. I am intentionally puttering today, since I need it badly. I don’t teach on Fridays, and last night I was at school until late for a glorious Hispanic cultural evening.)

Most of my good ideas come out of puttering. I love to mull over lesson planning: I read the text, think about it, think about different ways to present it and things to pull out of it, think about how my students might respond to it, and start to shape the lesson from there. I putter when coming up with ideas for writing and when revising existing pieces; they take various shapes in my mind, and I seize the one  that seems best. Puttering allows me to reread books, listen to music, memorize a poem, work on a math problem, and so forth; and each of these activities can expand into something more.

Of course, you can’t spend your whole life puttering. You must also be able to pull things together under pressure. I like deadlines and performances for that very reason. Sometimes they bring things out that would not have been brought out otherwise; at the very least, they can help you get things done.

But I long to take my time with things, including lesson planning. I consider this a staple, not a luxury. Yet our society seems to treat it as either a vice or an afterthought. As a culture we place more value on doing, doing, doing than on thinking; more value on certainty than on uncertainty; more value on saying something than on taking something in; and more value on results of any kind than on slow and soulful labors.

Throughout the school system, throughout the country, from what I have seen and heard, teachers strain under unreasonable workloads, as do students. Not only do teachers have large classes and many of them, but their “prep” time during the day comes to little, if anything. In urban districts, a quiet place to work is a rarity; teachers often share classrooms and may not even have a desk. As for students, they are in class every minute of the school day except for lunch. They stay after school for electives and sports. Then, when they get home, they have several hours of homework. Students with college aspirations must build resumes and portfolios; in many cases, they must show not only their academic ability and interest, but their ability to lead a club, initiate a project, and speak on video. On top of it all, they have many digital distractions.

I do not recommend eliminating homework or extracurriculars (or, for that matter, technology), but something has to give. How is it that in high school I took Latin, Greek, French, history, physics, math, and English (sometimes two English courses at once), practiced cello for two or three hours a day, sang in the school choruses, participated in sports, and still had time to take long walks, see friends, and write stories and poems? Part of it is that the school trusted us with free periods during the day, so our schedules were not packed. Some of our frenzy today comes from a perceived need to fill everyone’s schedule, to make everyone accountable for every moment.

If we want to relieve some of this pressure and live more sanely, we need to move from accountability (where you must give moment-to-moment account of your actions, on someone else’s terms) to responsibility (where you honor your conscience and duties, relying primarily on an internal guide). Accountability has its place, but as a way of life it will squeeze the best out of us and drive us to exhaustion. Responsibility is much more difficult to build and sustain, but it allows for tranquility, though it puts us to serious tests.

But building responsibility—in society as a whole—is a complicated matter. It involves strengthening one’s solitude and learning not to give in to every passing craving or demand. It also requires having something to live up to, something worth the responsibility, something beautiful to carry as though it were our own.

Note: On March 5, 2013, I deleted the original first paragraph, as it was about the blog, not about puttering.

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.