own your slippers

I suspect most doctoral students feel overwhelmed by information at the end of their first year.  Because I’m the kind of student who can’t manage the anxiety of not being prepared for class, I read almost all of everything that was assigned to me, even if it was listed as optional.  And as often as I had time to, I read background material to help me understand what I was reading.  And then sometimes I read additional material that was listed in the references of assigned reading.  In short, I read a lot in 33 weeks.  And most of it I wish I had read more carefully.

So I am awash in ideas, theories, arguments, explications, and swimming in the midst of all this information about schools and teaching and power and discourse and epistemology and ontology is some information about me that I also need to read more carefully.

It turns out that there are people in my program who don’t like me.  Perhaps more importantly, it turns out that I am really bothered when people don’t like me, and that people not liking me consumes more of my time and energy than I have available right now when, you know, I should be reading.

Yesterday as I was walking home from the farmers’ market, feeling supremely grateful to be living in a town where I can walk to a farmers’ market and return home with garlic scapes and blue oyster mushrooms and baby rainbow chard and French breakfast radishes and snow peas and fava beans and a cucumber, I got over my shock at being disliked—I am so awesome, after all—and realized that the dislike I am experiencing here is much like the dislike I experienced at my last teaching job.  I think the term for me there was “suck-up cheerleader.”  Here it seems to be “elitist white girl who is taking advantage of her privilege.”

I begin to suspect that these dislikes are of the same variety.  Or, rather, that they are motivated by the same perception of my way of operating.  Because I am a cheerleader of sorts.  I do get cheerleader-level excited about what I’m up to, about what my students are up to, about things I read, about big talk with smart people who inspire and provoke me.  And I do take every opportunity to be up to big things.  And I do seek out other people who are up to big things, and I am not generally close with people who are not up to big things.  And I totally see how this way of being can quite easily be read as either sucking up or elitist, because I do enjoy many opportunities thanks to being so geeked about what I’m up to, and because I work hard at it, and because I am unbelievably lucky, in equal parts.

My friend Katherine, one of my loudest and most abiding cheerleaders, told me recently that my task is to figure out how to share generously even to folks who aren’t interested in or good at receiving generosity (and I should know who they are, she reminded me, because I am one of them).

I have a summer vacation kickoff ritual: I read a novel, usually one I bought ages ago that has been sitting on a shelf tempting me while I read for school or grade papers or write papers.  (This seeming digression will make sense momentarily, I promise.)  I just finished reading my first novel of this summer vacation, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.  If you haven’t read it, stop reading this and go read it right now.  Seriously.

Verghese has one of his characters, Ghosh, recount the tale of Abu Kassem and his slippers; there are several versions of the story, but they all have to do with Abu trying to get rid of his slippers and the getting-rid-of causing some trouble that he must take responsibility for.  In Verghese’s telling, the tale gets explained this way: “The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny….The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t….Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny” (351).

So the task is for me to own my slippers, own my cheerleader-y geeked-out way of being about school, which I seem to capably sustain both as a teacher and a student.  There’s no getting rid of it, and the getting-rid-of would cause trouble that I would have to take responsibility for.

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Statement of Emerging Research Interest

So I’m approaching my annual review, which is when the faculty of my program sit together and review my coursework and my program of study and my plans for research.  I’m supposed to compile a portfolio for their review, part of which is a Statement of Emerging Research Interest.

I hate everything almost everything about this task.  (I do love the organizing of documents into folders.  Green folders, of course.)

I have this issue with trying to fit all the things I’ve been thinking about and struggling with and worrying about and frustrated by into a one-page document with well-structured paragraphs.  And so I figured I’d share what I’ve come up with so far to a much more sympathetic audience.  I welcome comments and questions, particularly from all you teachers out there.

*  *  *

In his colloquium with doctoral students this term, Bill Ayers encouraged us to reconsider the phrase “I’m interested in…” as a means of introducing our topics (which he called “phenomena of interest”).  Rather he encouraged us to think of our work as being engaged with a particular issue, seriously and rigorously engaged.  I’m going to take his advice in framing this statement.

I am engaged with the issue of how to nurture and sustain teachers’ self-cultivation, a term I’m borrowing from a paper session at AERA.  Self-cultivation, it should be noted, understands the self not as an isolated individual, but as a center of relatedness.  My initial interest in reflective practice, and using a particular type of writing exercise to cultivate it, has become troublesome to me in several ways.  First, reflective writing without the context of a writing group easily becomes an isolated and isolating practice.  Second, not everyone finds writing a provocative tool for reflection.  Finally, reflection in and of itself is not adequate, perhaps particularly for teachers, who must be engaged in a certain kind of relatedness with students and classrooms and content.

Of course, the assignment to write a Statement of Emerging Research Interest came just as what I thought I wanted to be engaged with dissolved into confusion.  So to manage my confusion, I’ve made a list of the phenomena of interest I’m preoccupied with these days.

  1. I can’t wrap my mind around the project of training teachers.  What is it that we think they need to know before they stand in a classroom?  And how do we know what they need to know?  I am engaged in an exploration of the teacher knowledge literature, and I want to trouble the notion that we can teach teachers in university classrooms.  I am grappling with the question that maybe teachers can only learn about teaching while they are doing it.  Though I know it’s impolite to say so, some of the best teachers I’ve worked with were not certified in traditional teacher education programs.  I’m curious about how they came to their “teacher knowledge.”
  2. I’m intrigued by the possibility of a multiple objectivity, particularly as developed by Donna Harraway in her theory of diffraction, which is at the top of my summer reading list.  Several speakers at AERA mentioned “diffractive analysis” as a necessary complication to reflective practice.  I’m hoping it is a complication that moves me to an understanding of “teacher knowledge” that resonates with my own experience of classrooms.
  3. Speaking of my own experience of classrooms, until recently I’ve struggled to identify the central and meaningful components of what I would loosely call my teaching philosophy.  In trying to figure out what “teacher knowledge” is, I began with trying to figure out what I think I know about teaching.  And what I came to, knowing that any conclusion is contingent and revisable (thank you, Charles Peirce), is that I didn’t know anything.  What was known in my classroom was co-constructed by me and my students and the text we were working with and the classroom space we were working in.  And it was never the same twice.  That is, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” was not the same poem A period (with A period students, first thing in the morning, in the classroom with the National Poetry Month poster of his face) and E period (with E period students, right after lunch, outside in the arbor because the weather was nice).  And the lesson wasn’t the same, and what students “learned” wasn’t the same, and what I thought about the poem wasn’t the same.  What was the same were the intentions I carried into the space: 1) when students seem to be settled in their understanding, ask troubling questions until they accuse you of making their brains bleed, and 2) invite students to be the best version of themselves and to operate in a manner that invites the best versions of their colleagues.  So what kind of “teacher knowledge” is that?  And how do we teach it to pre-service teachers?
  4. I dream about writing a story collection as a dissertation.  I’d like to collect the stories of nontraditionally certified and non-certified teachers around this question of teacher knowledge, and turn them into parables or essays or interlocking short stories.  Stories that would be of use to teachers in rethinking their own teaching.  Stories that would make space for teachers to remember what they love about teaching.  Stories that would charge teachers up to change things.  I think I could write stories like that.  Maybe.

It occurs to me both that I’ve gone past my one-page limit, and that perhaps I should apologize for the unusual format of this statement of turning towards a phenomenon of interest.  And yet I don’t feel remorseful.  Bill also asked us to consider what we are willing to examine about our own contradictions, about what we believe.  What are we willing to explain?  And so these are the things I am committed to examining and would like to try to explain.

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and we’re back

A confession: I am not as fond of the Beats as I think I am supposed to be.  I mean, they are fine and all, and I can recite the requisite lines from “Howl” and I like the occasional Ferlinghetti poem (this one in particular: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171598) and I’ve read The Dharma Bums.  And in all, I am not so impressed.  They are so male and so disenchanted and so inebriated.  I am none of these things, except very occasionally.

But then I read Jack Kerouac’s 30 Beliefs and Techniques about Prose and Life, and I thought I’d share my favorites, you know, in honor of National Poetry Month and this long overdue blog post and writing in general, and because I am a sucker for a good list.

Seven Ideas Worth Stealing from Jack Kerouac:

#1  Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

#4  Be in love with yr life

#13  Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

#17  Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

#20  Believe in the holy contour of life

#24  No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

#30  You’re a Genius all the time

You can read the rest of the list here: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/03/22/jack-kerouac-belief-and-technique-for-modern-prose/

Happy spring, friends!

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consider: be suspicious of anything that sounds like dogma

So it turns out that I will likely be doing some dissertation research about writing, about how it is a process of discovery.  Rather than something we do in order to communicate what we know to others, writing is what we do to figure out what we know and that we know it.  To see if I can teach pre-service teachers to use writing to reflect on their teaching, I’ve been practicing, reflecting on and writing about some of the ideas I’ve been asked to consider this term.  And I thought I’d share, perhaps as a series.  Yes.  The consider: series.  I’ll give you the triggering idea as the title, in this case a piece of advice from my advisor on Day 1.

Consider: be suspicious of anything that sounds like dogma.

Several years ago, at the request of one of the smartest women I know, I went to an information session about Landmark Education.  I went because she asked, and because it was clearly difficult for her to ask, though at the time I could not even guess why.  I went because it was important to her, just like I go to church occasionally with my mom.  It’s about respect for the asker, not necessarily for the task.  Because it’s important to know about what’s important to the people who are important to me.

There’s a lot of bad press about Landmark Education—when I first Googled it, the critics came up before the official website did, but that’s not the case these days—most of it by “smart people” who dismiss Landmark as yet another way for people to opt out of thinking for themselves.  They make the same argument about organized religion and certain recovery programs.  And no doubt, there are folks involved in all these programs/systems/institutions who are involved in order to avoid thinking.  But that is not the intended audience, I would argue, for any of them.

If the critics (of Landmark, of religion, of AA) were being honest, they would also admit that they don’t want to give up being miserable.  We can’t possibly give up being miserable.  The economy would collapse.

Also, in this modern landscape that foregrounds cynicism, we are not supposed to admit either that we want to be happy or that we might need some help to be so.  We are not supposed to admit to needing any help at all, particularly help that comes with a hard sell and is delivered in a three-day seminar to 150 people.  Help is not supposed to come with uncomfortable chairs and fluorescent lights; it is not supposed to be occasionally combative.

Nonetheless, my weekend at Landmark was not only helpful, but profoundly so.  I would not be sitting in this coffee shop in Eugene, procrastinating about the one last paper I have to write before I can officially be done with this term, without the work I did at Landmark Education.  Not because terrible, horrible, no good things would have become of me.  But because I would be doing the same damn thing I had been doing for years before that uncomfortable, fluorescent weekend.

Any ideology—or “technology” as it is called at Landmark—is only meaningful or effective if you accept its essential assertions, its first principles.  The instructor in my Research Design course opened the class by asserting her position as a positivist; she believes that the world is fundamentally knowable and, thus, measureable, and so she makes sense of the world, she tells its story, with factor analysis and multiple regression.  And this is the prevailing view in the research programs at the University of Oregon.

The only part of her positivist ontology that makes any sense to me is that we are trying to understand the world by telling a story about it, seeking the best-fit narrative, adjusting along the way to accommodate new data or plot twists.  I’ve been preoccupied with narrative for years, how it is constructed, how it is deployed to make meaning in the world.  And this is why Landmark’s technology resonated with me so instantly.  One of its first principles is that we construct ourselves in the world using a particular narrative.  We understand the plot trajectory (we believe that trajectory is inevitable given the previous plot points we’ve lived through), and we understand it to be progressing toward some climax (some moment at which the plot points converge into life as we want to live it).  We seek out characters and settings and events that fit into the trajectory, and we largely ignore those that don’t.  The world becomes fodder for the writer, who selects the details she believes advance the plot.  She won’t, for example, insert space aliens into a romantic comedy.  And so we live, plodding along predictably, collecting details that forward our stories, ignoring many, many possible twists and tangents, unfamiliar scenarios, space aliens.  We become so insistent on forwarding the plot that we lose sight of the fact that we’re writing a story.  The author and the act of authoring recede so far into the background as to disappear from the tale altogether, and we forget that there is a vantage point from outside the narrative, that this is but one of many possible narratives.

As Susanne Langer explains about how new ideas sometimes take on a life of their own: “They resolve so many fundamental problems at once that they also seem to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems, clarify all obscure issues.”  They are snapped up, she says, “crowding out almost everything else for a while.”  Over time, she asserts, we start to see where the explanation doesn’t fit.  We see that it explains certain things very well, other things less well, and some things not at all.  If we are flexible thinkers, we will use it where it works and not where it doesn’t, rather than becoming theory evangelicals, proselytizing where we are not welcome.

Dogma is dangerous, mostly because it is so comfortable.  We snuggle right down into it and settle in.  And any time we catch ourselves getting comfortable, we should be nervous.


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a whole different kind of tired

I had the best intentions.  Don’t we usually?  I started off my first term as a doctoral student with a workout plan (I signed up for a Halloween 5K sometime in early September, and copied the couch-to-5K training plan into my calendar), a writing plan (I signed up for NaNoWriMo), and a reading plan (I carried a non-school-related book on the bus each day).

Now I am only one presentation (ready to go this afternoon) and one paper (first draft mostly done) away from the end of my first term.  I finished the 5K, went out for one more run, and then left my tennies on the floor by the front door for the entire month of November.  I began my NaNoWriMo project and wrote diligently for a week, then sporadically for another week, nearly reaching the 20,000 word mark.  And then my brain went dead for three whole days, and I spent the next two weeks catching up on my schoolwork.  I read half of Lorrie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs before I had to use the bus ride to finish reading for class; I’m not even sure where Lorrie is at the moment.

Don’t misunderstand, this is the best work-life balance I’ve ever achieved.  In October, John and I did lots of cooking and a bit of hiking, though by the second week of November he’d pretty much taken over cleaning and cooking and grocery shopping, with my very occasional help with a load of laundry or a batch of cookies.  And I made an awesome (if I do say so myself) advent calendar for my BFF, Nishta, read the His Dark Materials trilogy, and made some progress on a knitting project while we watched a few mindless action movies.

Here’s what I’ve learned.  Cooking and crafting, in small doses, are sanity-savers, and I feel better when I make things.  I need to replace my stack of intellectually challenging novels with lighter fare (recommendations are welcome!) so that I can save my brain for high theory and statistics.  And I’m going to sign up for the Hagg Lake sprint triathlon in June as soon as the registration opens, and copy the training schedule into my calendar.  Since we are moving to campus in a few weeks, I can take advantage of the gym facilities and stop using the cold raininess as an excuse.

Here’s what else I’ve learned.  I need to think about things—for a longer time that we generally get to do so in this program—and I’ve accumulated many things that need to be thought about.  Notes I jotted in class or while reading, bookmarked websites, shelf serendipity discoveries from the library, phrases that I want to write about.  So that’s what you have to look forward to, dear readers, in the coming weeks.

After one last presentation, and one last paper.

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It seems I’ve been caught in some sort of time-suckage field into which all of October has vanished.

But as a fabulous spin instructor once yelled repeatedly into his headset-microphone contraption: Don’t be skeered!

November is NaNoWriMo time.  The panopticon.  Skinner boxes.  30-day challenges.

It’s going to be meta.

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listicle #1

I learned the term ‘listicle’ from this article on GOOD, http://www.good.is/post/the-top-5-things-that-bother-me-about-this-headline/.  In it, Alissa Walker poses intriguing and mostly disturbing queries about the nature of writing in the age of content creation.  Enjoy, ponder, deliberate, etc. at your convenience, but I have moved on already, grateful that my experiences today now have their own genre.

7 Things I Saw On the Way To or From School Today (or: Welcome to Eugene)

  1.   A black and white spotted dog in the bed of a red pickup truck.  The dog had escaped its kennel and had its front paws on the side of the bed to maximize that wind-in-the-face thing dogs love so much.  The driver/dog owner was similarly sticking his head into the wind, trying to reason with the dog, pleading with it to pleasepleaseplease get back in its kennel or else he’d have to stop again and they would be late.  Like the dog was going to voluntarily forgo its momentary wind-in-the-face liberation in favor of being on time.
  2. A man dressed like Gandalf—or possibly Dumbledore—pulling a wire utility cart behind him with one hand and punctuating each step with a huge walking stick in the other.
  3. Three high school boys on their way to school in a clearly borrowed-from-dad BMW 3-series, all the windows down and music playing loudly, ensuring that the greatest possible number of people would notice that they were driving daddy’s BMW.
  4. A Craftsman house, bluish grey with slightly darker bluish grey trim, its front porch littered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of discarded 16-ounce red plastic cups.  Several of the cups had made their way drunkenly up the street and stumbled into various neighbors’ shrubbery to pass out.
  5. A very pregnant, heavily tattooed woman walking a tortoiseshell cat on a pink leash.
  6. A woman in a business suit and stack-heeled pumps cycling very determinedly in the bike lane.  She was trying to keep her handbag balanced behind her, but it kept slipping around her waist toward the handlebars; each time she pushed it back, her course would waver, each time toward traffic.  She was not wearing a helmet.
  7. Two young women with identically poufy hair and identically pouty red lips wearing bitsy black dresses of the one-shoulder club-going variety and very high peep-toe heels walking towards campus.  At 1:30 in the afternoon.

That is all.

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