On Human Harm and “Isms”

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Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.

 

Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“And comes that other fall we name the fall”

What can I say about my professor John Hollander, who died on Saturday?

He was a brilliant teacher and poet, and he was kind to me.

I thought of commenting on Robert Frost’s sonnet “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same,” which I hear in Hollander’s voice, as he recited it. But that would invite the wrong meanings–something about his “oversound” and how “probably it never would be lost.” No, that won’t do.

“The Oven-Bird” and Hollander’s commentary are a different matter. They fit the day precisely by not fitting. The mismatch makes good angles in the mind.

Still, I don’t want to comment on either one right now. I’ll let them stand as they are.

I have tried in the past to describe his teaching; I don’t think I achieved an approximation. There was no one like him at the time, and there are fewer now.

The Eensy, Weensy Spider in the Universal Crisis

When reciting Robert Frost’s poem “One Step Backward Taken,” I am strongly reminded of the children’s song “The Eensy, Weensy Spider” (or “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider”). I do not think this association is accidental or mine alone. Rather, it figures in the play of Frost’s poem. I have not read this observation anywhere, but I imagine that it has been made many times.

Here is the poem:

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices.
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.

According to Jay Parini (on p. 360 of Robert Frost: A Life), Frost wrote this poem in 1945, in recollection of his experience of a flood in 1927. Traveling by train across Arizona on his way back to Amherst, he saw a bridge washed out; in Parini’s words, a car on one bank was “edging backward carefully each time a slice of earth fell away.”

It is also usefully tempting to hear, in the final two lines, a suggestion of “up came the sun and dried up all the rain, so …” (“…the eensy weensy spider went up the spout again”). Even the rhythms are compatible: one could superimpose one on another and hear a counterpoint there.

If this is so, then this “universal crisis” could be something as tiny as a spider on a dirt mound in the rain (or as large as a world falling apart). That may be part of its universality: you can find such crises everywhere, in spiders and in men.

Here is a counterpoint of large against small and of shape against shape. Not only does one hear the nursery song playing against the poem, but one also hears various parts of the poem playing against each other.

Consider the poem’s structure, first of all. In terms of rhyme, it consists of three couplets, AA, BB, and CC, followed by the interweaving DEDE FGFG. Thus it consists of two parts: the first six lines, and then the next eight, an inversion of a sonnet. One would expect, then, a volta, or turning point, around the seventh line. Instead, it occurs at line 10, “But with one step backward taken.” This leads the reader to hear the first nine lines as one part, and the next five lines as the other. The two parts interlock, since the “-aken” rhyme ending occurs in both.

So one can think of the poem in terms of two parts: the crisis, and the stepping backward from it. But there are more ways of breaking it down.

Look at sentences. The first six lines comprise one sentence and describe the scene, but the seventh line belongs to the description as well. Then, in the eighth line, the poem turns to the speaker’s experience, “I felt my standpoint shaken.” One could thus see the first seven lines as the first part of the poem, and the next seven lines as the second.

The various divisions of the poem play against each other in the mind–maybe a little like capes caking off in various ways. There is also the subtle wit of the line “bumped heads together dully,” which brings something comic and human into the natural scene. Maybe we are dealing in part with a crisis of bumbling fools.

In any case, what’s remarkable about this poem is the way it sets rhythm against rhythm, shape against shape, meaning against meaning. The poem raises the possibility that it is dealing with something enormous on the one hand and something minuscule on the other. It’s the play of the two that makes this so much fun.

Of course, there’s serious meaning in this too. It has to do with stepping back when everything seems to be falling away. Maybe it has also to do with detaching oneself from the supposed urgency of the moment. But there’s quite a bit of jest in the poem, as I hear it, and hints of paradox, too.

At one (or more) of his readings, Frost commented on the title of the poem. (I have a recording of one such reading; I don’t know when or where it took place.) He said that he had originally given it the title “I Felt My Standpoint Shaken.” (My guess is that he did no such thing, but it doesn’t matter here; the whole story is told in jest.) A few people approached him and asked, “So, you mean you’ve been reading Karl Marx too?” Then he changed the title to “One Step Backward Taken”; a few people asked him, “You think we ought to back out on the bomb, don’t you?” At a reading at Dartmouth College (according to Frost, in this same story), a student spoke up and said,“Why don’t you call it ‘Bumped Heads Together Dully’?” (Roars of laughter from the audience.)

They laugh—but maybe “Bumped Heads Together Dully” really is the most fitting title. When I read a lesson plan for the teaching of this poem, I had to take one step backward to save myself from going. I have seen and criticized many a “strategy” lesson (I find the emphasis on “strategies” distracting and downright stupid), but this one takes the cake. Here, the teacher presents the poem in order to illustrate the “think-aloud” strategy. He or she “thinks aloud” (or, rather, blunders) through the poem, relating it to the unit’s overarching theme of “transitions and change,” and then puts the students in groups (for a “socially constructed learning environment”) to practice “think-alouds” with song lyrics. No more Frost; the point here is the strategy. No more thinking, either, but there wasn’t much to begin with. (I don’t fault the teacher entirely; she is doing what she was taught to do.)

Whole capes caked off in slices, indeed.

Note: I made some changes to this piece after its initial posting.

Tobias Wolff’s Old School: Truth, Tangent, and Return

After yesterday’s post on yearning and return, I realized I had omitted something that had been on my mind for a long time. Here it is.

If you have not yet read Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School (2003), please read it before reading this piece, which will reveal some of the ending. I also encourage you to put off reading reviews until you have read the book. Though widely praised, it has been strangely misunderstood by some, including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. Such are the pitfalls of reviewing: the best reviews draw attention to good work (or preserve us from mediocrity), while the worst sacrifice the book to the reviewer’s own needs and frailties. Few reviewers are consistently insightful; they succumb to their own stuff, as we all do at times. That’s how I see Kakutani’s review. Enough of that.

I am writing about this book because, from the first reading in 2003 through the third and most recent one yesterday, I have been carrying it around in my mind. I pick it up (literally or in the imagination) and return to favorite passages. It says more about education than many an education book; it is part of my own education. It is the ending that seizes me, though everything else builds slowly to it—an ending that seems a tangent but becomes a return and revelation. I will look at this return today.

(more…)

The Misuse of “Data” (the Word)

The misuse of the word “data” in education has been bothering me for a long time. People call all sorts of things “data” that aren’t data, with the intent, I suppose, of sounding scientific. At schools around the country, teachers working on “inquiry teams” examine “student data”–that is, their essays and other work. Why not just call them essays? My complaint goes beyond the trivial. When you call things “data” that aren’t data, you distort both the things themselves and the methodology used to examine them. So let’s keep “data” where it belongs.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the mass noun “data” as “Related items of (chiefly numerical) information considered collectively, typically obtained by scientific work and used for reference, analysis, or calculation.”

So, for instance, student test scores, ages, family income, ethnic background, and home languages could be considered data. The first three are numerical to begin with; the latter two can be sorted and counted.

Survey results are “data” but must be treated with caution, as seemingly like elements might not be similar at all. Seventy-two percent of students might indicate that they are “happy” with their school, but “happy” could mean many different things.

Certain things are not data but are routinely called data. These include lessons, conferences, student work, lesson plans, lesson observations, reflection pieces, and more. These must be rescued from the “data” denomination and called by their real names.

Why? Because when you are reading student essays, you may well be looking for general tendencies, but you are also treating each one on its own. You could calculate how many essays had clear thesis statements, but that wouldn’t give you a clue about what the thesis statements actually were. Even among clear ones, some have more substance and promise than others. You could count how many paragraphs began with topic sentences, but a paragraph need not always begin with a topic sentence. Much depends on what the student is trying to do. An essay has an interplay of ideas, details, and organizing principles; it cannot be broken into bits that then add up to the whole.

Why do some educators and many policymakers want to call everything data? I presume it’s because it makes the work sound more scientific. There are two problems with this. First, slapping scientific terms on things doesn’t make them scientific; it’s an insult to science and mathematics. Second, education is not and should not be entirely scientific. It draws amply on the humanities and builds and sustains culture.

Humanities are not fuzzy, flimsy, or fluffy. They have their own logic and standards; they are just as exacting as the sciences but in different ways. Discerning the remarkable in Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design” (thanks to Michele Kerr for reminding me of the poem) takes a good ear, an understanding of sonnets, and even some knowledge of plants and philosophy. But it takes more than that. You have to be well attuned to poetry’s shifts and structures. You may grasp something of the poem at a naive level, but as you read on and on, and come back to it over time, you grasp more. Yes, there is some systematic methodology in poetic analysis, but systematic methodology alone won’t get you far. You need to build yourself a realm and dwell in it.

That’s part of what education does: it builds realms. It is exacting, exhilarating work, and only some of it is data.

What David Brooks Doesn’t Get

In his New York Times op-ed “Testing the Teachers” (April 19), David Brooks warns that “an atmosphere of grand fragility” hangs over America’s colleges. The grandeur, he says, comes from the colleges’ increased application rates, new facilities, and international reputation; the fragility, from increased tuition combined with uncertain results. What must we do? Hold colleges accountable for results—through value-added testing. That’ll show who’s teaching and who isn’t!

Brooks is wrong. Accountability systems would drag down our colleges. The best would be made mediocre, and the worst would rise to mediocrity at most.

Having put forth the idea, Brooks waxes dreamy about it. “There has to be some way to reward schools that actually do provide learning and punish schools that don’t,” he muses. “There has to be a better way to get data so schools themselves can figure out how they’re doing in comparison with their peers.”

What Brooks doesn’t understand is the difference between accountability and responsibility. It is the latter, not the former, that will help and sustain colleges.

Responsibility is an internal sense of duty; accountability, an external show. The professor who who puts full thought into lesson preparation, corrects student work, holds office hours, challenges students in class, and takes them, day by day, into the subject—this professor has a deep sense of responsibility but may or may not “produce” test score gains. A professor who focuses on showing results to outsiders (an accountable professor) may be less immersed in the subject, less concerned about navigating tricky points—but may raise test scores. If schools must foster the latter sort of teaching, they will glide into a monotone.

But why should accountability and responsibility be at odds? They are not always opposed, but there’s ongoing friction between them. To honor one’s best thinking and conscience is not the same as to do what others want and recognize. The best instruction does not absolutely and consistently produce test score results.

For one thing, course content may not match the content of standardized tests (and it would be dreary if it did). Second, if students take especially difficult courses, they may go an entire semester without showing visible progress. A grade of “C” may be honorable in such cases. Third, each subject has its language, structure, and logic; these are not always easy to convey to those outside the field. In their presentation “Assessment on Our Own Terms,” delivered at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, Mark Wait and Samuel Hope draw attention to the difficulty of translating “musical logic” into “speech logic.”  Fourth, the higher the level of study, the more complex the assessment becomes. (That’s not to say that assessing kindergarteners is a straightforward matter.)

This leads to another flaw in Brooks’s suggestion. He assumes that it is the colleges’ duty to “produce” visible signs of learning. But even today, with the tuition hikes, many students go to college to be challenged, to explore many subjects, to dedicate themselves to a major, and to work on something of beauty. Getting top grades isn’t necessarily their first priority. Some would rather take more courses, or more difficult courses, at the risk of lower grades than take easy courses and get all A’s. Some find themselves immersed in a particular course or subject and let the other ones slide a bit. Some follow an idea or a project only to discover that they are on the wrong track. This is their prerogative, and they must take the consequences.

True, not all students are so serious–many  skip class repeatedly, go to party after party, and fret over relationships. If they slip too far, a good hard “F” can shake them up. Deans and advisors should watch for students in danger of failing, but students must learn to make choices and take responsibility for them. It does not help students—especially college and graduate students—to make someone else responsible for their performance.

Now, of course I am assuming a liberal arts college or school of art (or music or drama), and a high-level one at that. I am not referring here to colleges where most of the students need remedial courses. Nor am I talking about vocational and technical schools, whose mission is to prepare students for a concrete profession or trade. These are colleges with specific, standardized goals—and they should make good on their promises, provided the students do their part.

But it is not nostalgic, romantic, or naive to insist that college also be about something else: about pursuing interests, enjoying a life of the mind, making and learning from mistakes, being around intensely knowledgeable and interesting people, studying a subject at a high level, and yes, allowing for imbalances between receiving and giving. Education is a gift in a troubling sense, a sense that recalls Robert Frost’s lines about a star, “It asks a little of us here. / It asks of us a certain height.” This is no trivial demand. Students, receiving a fine education, do not immediately show the height required. Sometimes this takes years, even decades. Sometimes we think back on something learned long ago and see how it honed our thinking and our lives. That’s a result worth defending to the end. We must not treat such learning as a lie.