“I Contemplate a Tree”

buber tree 2On Wednesday I took two of my classes across the street to Morningside Park to look at trees. We had been reading the tree passage in Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which begins with the declaration, “I contemplate a tree.” The speaker first accepts the tree as a picture, “a rigid pillar in a flood of light,” then feels its movement, then observes it as a species, then perceives it as an expression of physical and chemical laws, and then “dissolves” it into a number. “Throughout all of this,” he writes, ” “the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.”

Then comes a shift: “But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.”

I told my students that we could not replicate what Buber described in the passage–that the sheer effort to replicate it would defeat  the purpose. I asked them nonetheless to pay attention to what happened.

It was imperfect, of course, because we had little time and had to stay together. One or two students moved a little apart from the group; others clustered together and moved close to the tree of their choice. I saw them fingering the needles, observing the crinkles of the bark, noticing a long worm on the ground.

I had to keep an eye on everyone and everything, so I could not focus on a tree–but as I looked around, I was struck by each tree’s insistent form. Some were bare and gnarled; others showered you with color. Some had leaves falling from them as we watched; others stood warm and firm with their needles and cones. Some had berries or nuts; others, nothing but trunk and branches. Yet these had more than appeared at first glance. You could follow the lines in their bark as though listening to a story.

For my students, too, this was imperfect. Street noises and other distractions made it difficult for them to focus. All the same, they appreciated taking a few minutes to look at a tree; it was something they didn’t get to do very often.

On the way back to school, I thought of taking a picture of one of the trees. It seemed to go against the spirit of our outing, so I didn’t. Later in the day, I returned and took a shot. This set off a stream of thoughts about the nature of pictures and other mementos.

When you take a picture of something, you are turning it into a possession of sorts–something you “have” and can pull out at will. In one discussion of Buber, a student spoke of the satisfaction of Polaroid cameras–of seeing that tangible object emerge from the camera soon after the photo is taken. So, in the taking of a photo, there is some wish or effort to possess what is not really yours–to claim what cannot be claimed, to hold what cannot be held.

Yet it is also possible, when taking or looking at a photograph, to see it as a hint of something else–not as an object or possession, but as a reminder of something not possessed or contained. (Much of the early controversy over religious icons had to do with these different ways of regarding a picture.)

There is still a third possibility: the photograph can be a work of art and can take on its own life and limitlessness. It is then no longer merely a representation of something else. Buber writes about the creation of art:

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. Not as a thing among the “internal” things, not as a figment of the “imagination,” but as what is present. Tested for its objectivity, the form is not “there” at all; but what can equal its presence? And it is an actual relation; it acts on me as I act on it.

To “actualize” a form, as Buber describes, one must allow oneself the confrontation–yet this cannot happen through effort of will alone. Is there a way, then, to make it possible, or does it just happen? In other words, can Buber’s words be “applied” to life and to ethics, or are they for contemplation only?

I believe that they can be applied, if one defines “applied” cautiously. Buber’s words cannot in themselves take us to the You–but they can make us aware of our tendency to claim and circumscribe things. (Buber stresses that we cannot survive without the It–but that the It cannot involve our whole being.)

So I take a picture, but with slight regret. First, my picture is far from a work of art, so it does not exist at that level. Second, it reminds me of the outing but leaves out almost everything. Third, while on the outing I resisted taking the picture, but later I caved in–so the picture is both removal and compromise. Yet it is pretty: the branches, leaves, and texture, the sense of something more.

Whenever I take a picture, I have ambivalence of this kind; it is usually wound into a tight thought, but it is present all the same. Here, the thought unravels. To “apply” Buber, then, is not to encounter a tree fully, nor to stop taking pictures, but to come closer to knowing one’s intentions.

Why “Turn and Talk” Instead of “Pause and Think”?

A recent New York Times article describes a classroom observation in which a teacher supposedly made good transitions between “turn and talk” activities and lecturing. (She was criticized, though, for not asking more open-ended questions.)

I commented on this article, despite being unable to access it from my home computer (I’ve exceeded my limit of free NYT Digital articles) and having great trouble with my iPad’s touch keyboard, which seems to invite typos. I criticized this new evaluation system for being very much like previous ones—for emphasizing processes and activities over the content of the lesson. I asked, while I was at it, whether “turn and talk” was a worthwhile activity in the first place.

Of course its value depends on its relation to the lesson topic—and, to a large extent, on how it is conducted, if it absolutely must be conducted. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll explain why I think “turn and talk” should cede at least some space to “pause and think.”

A “turn and talk” activity usually goes like this. A teacher poses a question of opinion or something else that’s easily answered. Then she says, “Turn to your partner and talk about it! Come on, let’s hear everyone talking!” Then she circulates to make sure they are “on task”—that is, talking about the subject. Within thirty seconds or so, she stops the discussion and maybe asks students to “share out.”

While the “turn and talk” is going on, the room is full of noise. You can’t hear yourself think. Also, you know that anything serious you begin to say will probably be cut off in midsentence. It is better not to bring up an idea that you care about. It’ll get lost in the rush and tumult.

Also, the chances are fairly high that your “turn and talk” partner won’t do anything to challenge you or push your argument a few steps further. The point is not to work with ideas, but to show that you’re talking, period. Supposedly talking is good, even if you aren’t saying much.

Then what? After a “share” or two, the whole discussion is swept under, as though it didn’t matter. The lesson moves on to the next activity.

“Turn and talk” is meant to draw out shyer students who wouldn’t necessarily speak out in class discussion. But is this hubbub an improvement? For some, it might be; others, however, might want to run out of the room. Proponents of “turn and talk” ignore the possibility that a student who stays silent in class discussion may actually be thinking.

Yes, it is possible to be intellectually active without saying a word out loud! In fact, whole-class discussions allow students and teachers many possibilities. A student might stay silent on some days and speak up on others; the teacher might leave her alone one day and call on her the next. Yes, some students may feel intimidated speaking up in front of the whole class—but if the focus is on the subject, and not on the social relationships, many students will participate. (I include silent participation in this.)

Why should anyone be forced to talk before he or she has something to say? A few years ago I audited a physics class; on the first or second day, the professor posed a question and had us talk to our neighbors about it. I knew that I didn’t know the answer to the question; it seemed my neighbor did, but the activity concluded before she could explain what she knew. I would have loved to listen to the professor’s explanation in that instance.

I favor whole-class discussions and lectures because they allow one to focus and build on an idea, and because they suit my subject matter (philosophy). It is true that other classes in other subjects (such as languages) might benefit a great deal from “turn and talk” and similar activities. It is also true that most subjects could use “turn and talk” sparingly. The problem arises when everyone is supposed to incorporate “talk activities” in the lesson.

Also, it does matter how the activity is conducted. At its best, “turn and talk” resembles the Jewish practice of hevruta, or studying religious texts with a partner. Such “turn and talk” is not frenetic or noisy; it allows for pauses and silence and lasts longer than thirty seconds. Hevruta has substance because it is about something substantial; the same could be said for a good “turn and talk” session. (If I were to try to institute good turning and talking, though, I’d give it as an assignment, so that the students could go off to a quiet place with their partners and discuss a topic without rush. But then, where is that quiet place, and when are the students not rushed?)

On the whole, I consider “turn and talk” activities painfully superficial and wasteful, but I recognize that they, like so many other oversold procedures, have a time and place.

Note: For the sake of consistency, I kept “turn and talk” unhyphenated throughout this piece. There’s a good argument for hyphenating it when it functions as an adjective, but that seemed too jittery.

  • “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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