Friday, January 30, 2015

Write a Poem a Day

January 30, 2015
What I Have Learned in the First Month:
     During 1996, I wrote a poem every day—sometimes up to four—without fail. My harvest for the year?  Over 450 poems. Too much of the time I strained from having to write lock step: clock-driven, "required."  Although there was joy and energy and insight--poems that I love and that were well received--I dropped the commitment at the end of the year.

     I recommitted myself this year to write a daily poem or song, and two weeks into the honeymoon, my inner perfectionista reared her Kali head to whip me to the laptop, as my grandmother whipped me to the piano when I was four years old. I froze. That’s no way to sustain a creative life.  Encouraged by my poet friend Joan Cacciatore Mazza, who has kept this commitment going for three consecutive years, now, I am developing ways to keep my worthy commitment with compassion and wisdom:

(1)  BREATHERS: I’ve been honoring my Sabbath by not using the internet or my computer on Sundays. This commitment has been in place for years, and is life-saving.  (See my blog entry for March 24, 2014 Media Freeze). I'm adding: No new writing.  I do enjoy puttering with manuscripts and revising on hard-copy, but the heat is off.  I'll revisit the idea of writing new work on Sundays, at some point.

(2)  PREPARATION: I have come to the keyboard like a stunned deer, not knowing where to start. I am learning, instead, to prepare for writing as I would for a beloved.  Would I come late, blow-off a date, disheveled, empty-handed, resentful?

(3)  WRITE WHEN INSPIRATION COMES:  Anne Sexton said that her only discipline was to write when inspiration comes.  Take the gift if it comes.  But don’t fall into the trap of limiting myself to that.

(4)  BRIDGE: I notice that it’s helpful to start a poem one day, and finish a draft, the next.  This gives me a go-to warm-up.  Hemingway recommended to end the day mid-sentence, so as to have a launch for the next date.  Two half poems—the finish of one and the start of another—count as a whole poem for the day.

(5)  NOTEBOOK:  Keep a notebook with me, as I would a trusted friend.  Be conscious to record, in writing or voice, notes, ideas, lines, poems, and songs as they come.

(6)  FALLBACKS:  Use prompts from all the rich print and online sources I have, such as Diane Lockward's superb THE CRAFTY POET.

(7)  READ: Nothing makes me want to dance more than being with other dancers.

(8)  MOVE EASY IN HARNESS:  Robert Frost said "Freedom is moving easy in harness." A bit pulled too hard can gags the horse.  Since I’m taking off Sundays, I am not going to require a poem for every day of the year. 

(9)  ARTIST’S DATES:  Rilke recommends solitude, Cameron solo dates.  It works!  My runs often yield poems, as do unmediated drives, forays of various sorts.  Poet Peter Murphy has, for years, taken himself, solo, to the Jersey shore for writing weekends. I realize that shopping for clothes has been very generative for my poetry.

(10)         REWARDS: Writing, itself, is the reward: the energy, insight,  joy in language, the integrity of honoring my gifts. Mark Edmundson rues that today’s students are not challenged to live life with “intensity, focus, and design.”  This recommitment challenges me to do just that: live with intensity, focus, and design.        

(11)         APPRECIATION: I finding it rewarding to list the titles of my poems and songs, print them out, and organize them in beautiful binders. Then, when Kali visits, I have something with which to distract her.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Knowing By Heart~The Dynamics of Memorization

     The writer is almost completely blocked by the podium where she stands, shuffling papers, adjusting her glasses.  She's not sure what to read, and finally settles on what she prefaces as "something I jotted down on the train coming over." She keeps her eyes on the page, throughout, punctuated by on occasional plaintive look up at the audience at the end of a paragraph. Another 26 minutes of this, and the audience members have stopped looking at her, are surreptitiously deleting Emails on their droids, or escaping to the loo. The boyfriend who accompanied student Sally is darting her looks~he will NEVER agree to coming to a reading again.  The writer looks over at the host.  He is sitting in the front row, slightly to her right, a strained encouraging smile lock-jawed onto his face. She asks him, "Do I have time for another story?"  Groan.
     I once saw Philip Dacey come to the podium at a Passaic County Community College Poetry Center reading, with nothing in hand. He started speaking, and we soon realized, to our delight, that he had already launched into his first poem. For the next who-knows-how-long, we rode his poetry with him from joy to grief to nostalgia and back. Unfettered by paper, he had his whole program by heart, constantly engaging us with his eyes, his voice, his movements. We were disappointed when he stopped. When I decided to start doing readings, seven years ago, I vowed that, like Dacey, I would recite my poems~as in "recite: to repeat or utter aloud something rehearsed or memorized, esp. before an audience" (American Heritage College Dictionary).
     There was a time when there were so few books and no standardized tests, so students memorized poems, passages from the Bible, plays, songs, multiplication tables. We all had a mental Rolodex of phone numbers and practiced strategies for remembering names. I have often been delighted when people "of a certain age" will, as Mary Ellen did in an open, hold forth with "The Owl and the Pussycat" or reel off a Dickinson poem to reorganize and energize a conversation.  But with ready internet and speed-dialing, we have all lost our minds~that is, our capacity for memorizing, retaining, and accessing.
     We have a recital at the end of the semester, during which all of my students present something from their semester~enacting a Shakespearean scene, reading their original work, doing a multi-media clip of an Achebe story.  When I suggest that they might memorize their portion, they freak. 
     There are steps between the hermit behind the podium and flying the trapeze without a net.  Yesterday, my student poets were rehearsing for this year's recital.  Each person, in turn, positioned him- or herself at the front of the room. We dispensed with any podium, as it becomes a wall instead of a conduit. After a first reading of a poem, we considered how we might emulate what worked, thus building a repertoire of aspects for everyone to shape: hand gestures, eye contact, body movement; pacing, volume, articulation, use of silence.  At this point, we also noticed what didn't work in a poem, inspiring changes to titles, beginnings and endings, redundancies, and dead zones.     
      Crucially, we noticed the relationship between reader and the paper on which the poem was printed.  First, hands: Hold it down at waist level, and the audience is cut-off.  Hold it up as a mask to your face, and it's even worse. We experimented with holding the page off to the side. That literally provided a heart opening to the audience~a sense of expansiveness and connection, so important to reaching an audience. Many students are adopting that as a mode. 
       Next, eyes: so tethered were some poets to the page, that they read ever word, one at a time, as if they were first-graders new to reading, at all. Of course, there was no way to make or maintain eye contact with the audience, and it was painful to watch. I recommended flashing onto phrases and looking up, in between.  I showed them how I, who don't have their poems memorized, can retain whole lines at a time by this method. This was a revelation and eased the way. In some cases, students plan to relineate and change font sizes in their poems for easier visual groupings.
       As a reciter and performer, I am nourished and inspired by the eyes of audience members. Some, however, get a deer-in-headlights daze. One student recommended this relaxation method: think of the people as sitting on a toilet~then you won't be intimidated.  That was a LOL moment! But if looking into eyes is disorienting, simply looking at foreheads will engage the audience and relax the reader.
      Then, I went after memorizing.  Deanna was pinching her paper so hard that it crackled, and she was reading one word at a time.  
       "Give me the paper," I said.  She did.  I added, "OK. Now recite your poem."  
       "I can't," Deanna said, distressed.
       "I know," I said, "Do it anyway."
And she demurred with more insecurities, and I just kept saying, "I know.  Do it anyway."
And then she did.  A whole stanza, until she got rattled that she could and stopped.  But that stanza was so moving, her connection with us so profound, that we know she will come through for us all.
      There it is.  Drop the paper and remember what you remember.  You will notice, too, what works and what doesn't, as you do.  Many of the students are now memorizing their poems for the recital.
      In the seven years since I first got up to recite, grabbed hold of the podium, and walked it off stage, I have memorized over 150 poems and songs, and created four 90-minute performance sequences with them. I have learned the importance of rehearsing while I'm in different modes of motion~walking, driving, biking, swimming; queuing up; keeping myself awake while others drone on (sometimes at readings), and putting myself to sleep at night; and, of course, stage rehearsals. The more mistakes I make in process, the surer I'll be with a audience.  As I rehearse, I learn more about the poems and have had the best ideas for revision. The parts I have trouble retaining are worth revisiting for excision. Listy structures can be as boring on the page as in recitation. Through this process of memorizing for an audience, I learn how to more fully inhabit the poems and songs~how to embody them more deeply.  The "drop-outs" or "mistakes" I might make in performance are just opportunities to boost the work.  And who's to tell?
      Proviso: NEVER have the paper or a prompter (electronic or human) nearby during a recitation or performance, because it invites the old addiction to reading from the page~it's a crutch. "The medium," wrote Marshall McLuhan, "Is the message." Unmediated by the page, the poet merges with the poem. Remind yourself: I am the message.
      And, how much more exciting, for you and for your audience, when you walk to the front without sheaves in hand.  And everyone realizes, you are flying without a net!
© 2014 Susanna Rich

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Teacher on Mute


  I sang fully and long and for two days to open our new one-woman musical—Shakespeare's *itches: The Women Talk Back.  On Friday morning, I woke up without a voice.  This had never happened to me before. Honestly, I was panicky—with two big shows coming up within twelve days. I had to rest. I love my classes too much to cancel unless it’s absolutely necessary. I knew that I would have to teach my morning Writing Poetry class without talking: whispering is even worse for the voice. I pushed my Mute button.
     Of course, I had the white board, might even have pulled down the screen and opened up the class PC. Or thrown the students (as it were) into groups for the whole time. But we had an opportunity. What would happen for almost three hours if I didn't phonate?
     Many of us come to this class before the official start time—to beat traffic, to munch Mary Ellen's goodies, to enjoy some chat time.  This is a media-freeze class, so there's nothing much to do but actually connect.  I wrote "Can't use my voice today" on the board. 
     And in my distraction, I had forgotten my book.  OK. Official start of class. I motioned for them to open their books (Mentor and Muse)—hands in prayer position, then open.  I motioned to Megan to begin responding.  She interpreted this as "start reading aloud."  OK. We usually do that for poems, but not for essays. Since I didn't have the book in front of me, that works. At the bottom of the page (I knew because of how her head bent as she read) I made my hands into goose feet landing on a lake. Someone noticed and told her to stop . I wrote on the board: "What did you learn for your own writing from this?"  All I had to do for the next half hour, was to record—point to the question I wrote in the middle of board, and record. I took to including quote marks and students’ names. Some fascinating dynamics!   A collaborative spirit arose, as students interpreted and reinterpreted for each other what I might meant with hand and body gestures—“say more," "stop apologizing" (we're retraining Generra), “that’s plodding,” “ho-hum,” “halleluia.”        
     I noticed that as the students shifted from interpreting my speaking to interpreting my body language, as they relied more on reading the board, their contributions became more visual and kinetic. Adam, who is an artist, read and interpreted my body language the most quickly and accurately to my intent.  He started to offer streams of images for the writing process, such as this for (yep) finding your voice—“it’s like tuning a radio.”  Deanna, too, sitting close to me, became an astute translator of my cues to the class. Students started to talk more softly and with more expression in their voices.  We became much more aware of all the sounds around us.  We retuned!
     When I asked the students what their experience was, they universally Liked (and Shared).  Not, ha-ha, because they would rather not listen to me, but because of how, like water, they were able to flow into the gap I left. These were some of their responses:  “we got to teach each other,” “it was fun,” “we took care of each other.”  I’ll ask again next week, to see how their week was affected by this experiment.

© 2014 Susanna Rich

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Training the Elephant

     If an elephant walks along a market street in India, she will reach now to the left for a melon, now to the right for a grab of pistachios~led by her trunk, glutting on the available feast. She will not walk very far. Why should she?  But given some object to hold, such as a stick, she can be easily led to the fields beyond, the brook where she might bathe, the open sun in which to bask.
     It is the nature of the human mind to be constantly scanning~for resources, mates, predators. Now this way, now that. Boredom is "nowhere to focus"~an experience of scanning that devolves into numbness; frustration; anxiety; depression, and its concomitant, anger. The antidote, and corollary tendency of the mind, is to seize on an object, like an owl on its prey. That's the how of golf, Elvis collections, laser surgeries, guacamole recipes, digital cameras. But the need to scan makes us vulnerable~to Nintendo, Tweeting, Facebooking, Cheetos, Black Friday sales, Budweiser, and on~all the things that offer our minds respite from scanning, at our own expense. The need to seize can freeze. If the elephant's trunk is constantly occupied, she can't feed herself.
     Even as I write this post, I find ways to stop myself from scanning. I open a new file to write the post, a not-to-be-underestimated step.  Woody Allen says, "80% of success is showing up." I anticipate what might arrest the attention of my readers. I choose an unexpected image for a teaching essay~an elephant. I find an image of an elephant with an unexpected basketball in her/his trunk. I surprise myself, and hopefully, you, onto the page. I keep a working outline scrolling ahead of me.
     When a student asks me What do you want? the subtext is likely to be Saving me from myself! She is asking for something to help her gather her attention in a direction, so she might move forward. But I, as her teacher, want something that will help me, as her teacher, to focus.  The A paper, if we must talk academic economics, is the one that surprises me with its originality, that stops me from scanning for something to get me through the stack of papers. That is, in short, not boring to us both.
     How do we guide our students to train their minds, so that they will not be vulnerable to predatory politics, commerce, and, yes, predatory teaching?  We can beat minds into submission, as mahouts traditionally do elephants. For that, bring on the hooks, the chains, the starvation, humiliation, the pain of rigid pedagogies.  Beat the elephant so it will walk that street.
     Or, we can resist what unenlightened administrators deem to be "focused": chaining students to hackneyed standards. A first step to this is to help each other appreciate how the mind works~that it will, that it must forage. But it also needs surprise and novelty to move forward.
     Then, when a student asks me What do you want? I turn the question back to her: What do you want?  What surprises you?  What energizes you?  Open questions, by their nature, focus us, lead us to surprise. Next, I ask How can we make this assignment about you? And then, the important step, help her to commit, to hold onto this focus for the ride.
     How are you training your own and others' elephants? Where is your slam-dunk?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Teaching to the Test*: Duh?


       “Assessment” derives from the Latin ad sedēre, “to sit next to.”  A lovely image—reading the same page or screen, together; mirroring responses; the side hug of human warmth; creating energy between us.  How very far that is from what assessment has come to mean—teachers stomping at the board or marching the aisles as they drill students, frightening them and their parents about impending test dates, proctoring (shall we etymologize that?) patrolling rows of tykes whose feet might not even reach the floor.  It’s military, hostile, intimidating, and wrong.  These assessment systems serve the bottom-line of litter-box education—coverage and control.

        Teaching to the test teaches students that knowledge is packaged into neat three and four options—all of reality suffering from the fallacies of trifurcation and quatrifurcation—boxed into tiny squares, fill-in holes. Constant choosing between others’ alternatives—not of your own devising.  Emily Dickinson, stop looking out the window and define “hope” (1) to wish for, (2) to look forward to, (3) to mistrust, (4) all of the above.  Where are the feathers?  Where is the singing in the chillest land?  Or, Will, stop nibbling on your quill: True or False, “Macbeth is the moving force in Macbeth.”  Albert failed the exam that would have allowed him to be an electrical engineer—what if that discouraged him from investigating energy?  And math: True or False: 1+1=2?  That’s only true in the decimal system: 1+1=10 in the binary.

           When we teach to the test, that’s exactly what students learn, sort of—how to take tests.  Duh!

            Honestly, if it can be teach-to-the-test assessed—it’s not important.  If it’s important, it can’t be assessed.  I’ll repeat that: if it can be assessed—it’s not important. If it’s important, it can’t be assessed. 

           That goes for assessing teachers, as well.  The most valuable lessons are the ones we can’t teach, directly. When I asked my College Writing: Theory and Practice students (including the chair of my department and several other full professors) what they appreciated most about our work together, I was hoping that they would mention my zippy take on punctuation, or the body of new research we discussed.  Their first answer was my passion for writing and respect for students.  That was not recorded on any lesson plan for the course.

            Learning doesn’t happen in neat, linear increments. I assess my learning and teaching experiences by what stays.  It’s one thing to study for and pass the test—it’s another to forget what you studied under duress, and with NO MEANING.  One student, hating Shakespeare when she entered a class, ended up having a quote tattooed onto her ankle—“And though she be but little, she is fierce.”  That’s assessment for student and teacher, both.  When, years later, I learn that a former student is quoting Emily Dickinson in her activist campaigns—that’s assessment of us all.

           True education is about helping students to develop as creative, thoughtful, compassionate, energetic human beings.  It’s flat-out mean to reduce our educational systems to numbers.  We are truly living in George Orwell’s 1984—digitalized and dehumanized by Big Brother education.

                 Which segues us to the etymology of “test”—the Latin testis for "testicles."  There was a time when testimonies (same root) were conducted by the holding thereof for lie-detection.  Let’s stop ball-busting, shall we?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Bliss of Marking Papers


        So the way I like to tell the story, the disciples approach Jesus and say, "Hey. We want to get this enlightenment thing.  Do we tear our clothes? Do we eat gluten-free? Do we confess that we cheated on our taxes?"  And Jesus says, (and what follows is for real): "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate." This is from the Gospel of Thomas in The Nag Hammadi Library, a series of scriptures found buried in urns that didn't make the cut for the Bible as we know it.  No wonder: Don't tell lies? Don't do what you hate? Institutions~whether family, school, church, government, business, or the local book club~would not exist unless we lied and did what we hated. Truly, think about it.  We all specialize in sailing down The River Denial. We lie to ourselves. We lie to each other.  And we drudge through things we hate. So the founders of the early church were not about to give these truth-telling gospels air time.

        So if what Jesus is purported to have said is the key to enlightenment, this means that teachers marking papers are destined for hell~or, at the very least, wrecked weekends and no time to watch "Lost" or "The Voice."  Because traditional ways of marking papers~copy-editing and co-writing student papers; assigning  numerical grades to everything; tabulating for report cards~are boring and onerous. The only way to keep doing it is to lie and do what you hate.

       In the beginning of my career, I truly hated marking papers, and I assumed the position that I just LOVED it~bled all over my students submissions (yes, that's the word for it) first in red ink, then in green (as if that was more "with it"), then in carbon pencil. I pored over every word as if it were the proverbial gospel truth.  I would end up putting more effort into responding, and often lay down more footage, than they did.

       Then I enrolled in a post-doc MFA program for poetry, and my over-zealous mentor bled all over one of my essays. I was a published author by then, had blissfully written a dissertation (no lie), was truly engaged in learning, and for a month I couldn't even read all the comments.  I couldn't revise.  I felt as though she had co-opted my work.  I was disenfranchised~literally, had lost my freedom of thought. If I was so affected, what about students who are insecure and discouraged~and therefore rebellious?

        WOW!  All those months and months of moiling over student papers~an agonizing, futile, backfiring waste. Then I read The Nag Hammadi Library.  Ever since, I have lived by that quote: "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate."  OK.  I approximate that as best I can, so I can still have students to teach and draw a salary that allows for massages. I also teach students to not tell lies and not do what they hate. Yes. Read on.

       Surely, it is worthwhile to review how students are thinking, learning, "progressing."  As I have grown as a teacher~and learn how to support their creative and critical thinking~the papers have become much more engaging.  But still.  So I ask myself these questions:  What exactly do I hate about marking papers?  How am I telling myself and my students lies?  I ask the students corollary questions: "Do you hate writing papers?  If so, why? How are you living a lie with them?" Then I ask, "How can we do this so that we can tell the truth and love what we do?"

       From my point of view: I hate stacks of papers~they overwhelm me.  I hate marking every error.  I hate reading unreadable work. Students hate being isolated from each other. They hate writing papers that don't reflect who they are. That's a whole other topic, but focusing on marking papers, here are some strategies that helped me transform our experience.  And the guy was right~the teaching and the learning got much, much better.

      (1) For all assignments, we focus on audience and reader engagement.  I draw a line where I become disengaged in a paper. This is far more helpful and awakening than the lie of plodding on. I will ask, "Did you write this in a rush? Resent it? Not care? Why?"  The ensuing discussion is where the learning happens.  Then I send the student back to write a real paper.

      (2) This is important~we learn what we do.  I don't need practice in revising their papers for students.  THEY do.  Either for themselves or for each other. (And fragments can be more effective than "complete sentences.")  See (3). I will identify an error pattern, but not do the work of finding all of the instances of it.  I find ways to encourage them to teach each other.

      (3) We respond to assignments in person. This truly solves the problem of leaning towers of spilled papers. I will put the paper on an overhead projector, either on a tray or digitally.  Looking at the same screen is a powerful communal act.

      (4) We do workshop the first pages of first drafts. "Yes but the good stuff is on page 3!"  "Well then, bring it to the front.  It's your job to get and keep us engaged."  

      (5) On submission days, students gather in groups of four to read and respond to each other's papers, while I one-on-one privately for grades.  KNOW THIS: we can all tell by a quick look where a paper is going.  Study the literature, not their papers. I ask students to tell me what their peers said.  They report back to the groups what I said.  It might take more than one day.  But we're done.  

      (6) Students come to me with a proposed grade, referring to criteria that I sometimes give them, sometimes have them develop together.  It's rare that a student is off by more than a plus or minus.

       The Benefits: No stacks.  Students get immediate responses and ideas for revisions.  They practice writing and reading for audience. They teach each other (which is the best way to learn).  We tell each other the truth, and we do what we love~exercise the power of language and community.

       "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate."  How can you be more authentic in the classroom?  How can you find bliss in your life?

© 2014 Susanna Rich

Monday, March 24, 2014

{Silence}, Yes/No, So-So What, and It Depends--Intellectual and Ethical Stages in the Classroom


          How we think and how we value, together, shape classroom experiences. I have distilled and nicknamed four stages of epistemic and ethical stances, drawing on William Perry's 1970 study of white Harvard males, Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, and Mary Belenky, et al's response to Perry in Women's Ways of Knowing: (1) {Silence}, (2) Yes/No Dualism, (3) So-So What? Relativism, and (4) It Depends Contextualism.  Although Perry did not focus on teacher stances and Belenky, et al studied women in a broad range of communities, they saw the stages of development as progressive.  Here, I will explore how teachers and students both contribute to the intellectual and ethical dynamics of learning.


This is one of the first lessons that students learn from an early age—how to be silent:  sit still, fold your hands, listen.  If you want to speak, raise your hands.  Wait for permission.  Be quiet when the teacher speaks. Too often, the teacher’s prejudices come to bear as to who will speak.  Experiment with this—take a gender tally.  You will notice that boys/men tend to be called on more frequently than girls/women.  In social situations, it’s not uncommon for the women to be silent when men are telling (and retelling) their stories.  Jokes out of context?  That’s the men’s specialty.  More lessons:  males own air space.  Notice how these dynamics function when it comes to race, age, beauty, sartorial preferences. 

          Yes, there is something to be said for how silence bespeaks of courtesy and listening in the classroom, but really—why must the teacher be the recipient of most of the courtesy and listening-to? Teachers talk/talk/talk.  Students learn what they do—shut up when the teacher is speaking. Let’s not be surprised when they don’t instantly jump into impassioned discussion when they’ve been veggying in their seats, practicing silence.

          As teachers, let’s say less.  Say nothing.  Treat silence as Japanese artists do space—something to create and shape.


Yes/No Dualism

At this stage, we buy into a bipolar cosmology—the world neatly divided into clearly defined extremes: Teacher/Student, Powerful/Powerless, God/Man, Man/Woman (gays and trannies aren’t real), Black/White—remember George W. Bush’s swagger when he bragged “I don’t do gray”?—and, of course, the almighty Right/Wrong.  Children, insecure teenagers, and stunted adults yearn to live in this universe—it’s safe, solid, permanent—please, it has to be.  And in this world we get to have someone—the person or deity in charge—to take care of us.

Symptoms of Yes/No dualism in the classroom?  Teachers who specialize in “I’m right/you’re wrong,” devising paintball hunts to splotch student “errors” with the favored color of ink or highlight—the better to grade you, my dear. Such a great way to serve (as administrators are delighted to call it) “the needs of assessment”!  Let’s wheedle yes/no answers from students.  Hooray for Multiple Choice!  Hooray for rote! Hooray for quantification of qualities!  Ask them questions they are likely to get “wrong” so we can tug-of-war them back to the sunshine of “right”!

Students in the Yes/No classroom acquire a mechanical attitude toward learning.  They can become anxious, bored, competitive, combative, and non-responsive in response. A polarizing atmosphere fosters hierarchies and animosities between students and breeds prejudice.

Students learn to ask teachers the most foolish of questions when they are forced to live in or aren’t guided out of the false security and therefore terrors of Yes/No dualism:  Can I ask a question?  What do you want?  How many pages?  (I’ll elaborate on those in another post.)


So-So What? Relativism

So-So What? Relativism is also known as “sophomoritis.” No longer a hazed and vulnerable newcomer needing the certainties of a bipolar universe, once sophomores pay backward the humiliations they suffered onto new freshmen, they may swing to the safety of solipsism: I live in my universe—you live in yours.  Don’t bother me with your point of view. With apologies to Descartes, this translates to I think it—therefore it is.

So-So What? Relativism in the classroom?  Teachers who specialize in being popular, anything goes, and coasting.  In writing classes, these teachers will praise everything—challenge no one. 

Students learn little when they aren’t drawn out of the So-So What? Relativism stage. They go slack.  They can’t focus.  They become entrenched in whatever, and are likely to revert to Yes/No.


It Depends  Contextualism

It Depends Contextualism embraces ambiguity, flexibility, democracy, and uncertainty.  It’s what John Keats said William Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  This is the danger zone of scholarly adventure, creativity, experimentation.  It cannot be easily assessed.
In this stage, truth and morality are treated as a function of context.  It challenges Kant’s categorical imperative, which I translate as “what if everyone were to do this?”  Well, if someone came into my classroom in a rage and asked, let’s say, for Terrence—I would instantly lie that there was no Terrence present.  I would, of course, be breaking the categorical imperative for honesty.  So be it!!!
Students who are encouraged to contextualize may baulk at having to abandon the certainties, prejudices, and arrogance of the Yes/No and So-So What? stages.  But the benefits of It Depends Contextualism—freedom of thought, creativity, flexibility, new experiences, depth of ideas, friendship, collegiality, and community—are immeasurable.  Contextualism fosters What If?—which is the foundation of civilization. It is to be lead forth from the shadows of Plato’s cave.  It’s what “education” means—“leading out.”


          How do you move among these stages?

© 2014 Susanna Rich


Media Freeze: Disavoiding the Void

     It's no surprise that there is such a cult of zombie events, literature, personal styling--what else have we become but our droids' droids?  When I walk around my university, I find so many people just lost to me--talking into their phones (or more scarily, into the air, as they have Star Trek devices in their ears to pick up conversation), thumbing texts, stroking tiny screens. Everywhere, heads bent, backs rounded, hands scrunched into soft fists. In the past, people around campus and I made eye contact, at least mumbled a greeting, held doors open for each other, or had to learn something about the need to avoid contact. I was able to ambush people (especially strangers) with compliments--brighten our day. But I can't go up to a speed-texter and say: "Excuse me.  I need a bit of human contact.  I like your phone case."  That would be icky.
    Smart (hm) phones, television, video games, even the microwave (my student Graig taught me this)--make us dependent on mediated experiences.  There's much more to say on this.  For now, I'd like to report on three things we're doing about it.

     CLASS AS SACRED SPACE:  First, obviously, no live phones during class.  But, further, no live phones in the classroom, either before or after class--and none during breaks. This freaks some students out.  I have actually had someone drop a class because of this--and this wasn't a mother with primary care for six children and three aging parents and in-laws.  It's a measure of the addiction, that someone can't take an hour or three off from the need to be absent.  What happens?  Our class becomes (take this in a non-sectarian spirit) a sacred--a safe space.  Even before class starts--without the opportunity to la-la into the ether--students get to know each other--they talk, work on the projects, check in about readings, make plans to share books.  They might actually pay attention to their hunger and eat. They come home to themselves and each other!

     FAVOR PAPER:  Screens make us, ironically, absent to each other. It's not the only thing--yesterday, a lovely student, who surely was listening, trailed off into doodling.  We talked about it in class-that we felt that he wasn't fully present. In any case, I don't allow students to use any but paper media for in-class readings. I read my Shakespeare plays on my Kindle, but lug my completed to class.  It's just a different experience to thumb paper. And there is something very moving about seeing students read from the same page. (Another blog.)
     MEDIA FREEZE:  I make a throwdown to conduct a media freeze: Identify your media addiction--anything that you use to avoid the voids in life (more on that in another blog).  The usual ones, these days, include texting, Tweeting, Facebooking, Emailing, television, ear-bud traffic, video games. We know what makes us users--what keeps us from doing or being what we truly want--the thing without which we don't think we could survive.  As I mentioned above, Graig, an avid culinary artist, realized that he uses the microwave instead of taking the time to cook.  And ah, the difference between a nuked and a slow-baked potato!  I hope Graig responds to this blog as to how he extended his media freeze.
     Then set a duration of time to shutdown on that medium.  Take notes on what happens.  Keep your commitment.

       It's years now, that my husband and I shut off the internet between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday. I read a lot on Sundays, cook special meals, we have long schmoozy conversations and actually notice if one of us had some hair work.

     But I'm a droid to my droid. I have spent hours on my phone playing Words With Friends--actually sitting on the couch with someone while we play each other.  No eye contact there, although at least we can pass the pistachio bowl to each other.  So I wrote to my WWF buddies--I'm taking a sabbatical.  That was 4:00 AM.

     It's 5:20 AM. Surprise! Surprise! I have made a commitment NOT to check out my games, NOT anticipate my next moves as I wait for my friends to make theirs, NOT to check out on myself.

     What's filling the void?  I started this blog. Hope you'll respond with your story.

© 2014 Susanna Rich

Friday, March 14, 2014

Teaching on the Edge of "I Don't Know"

          What makes Ashley Wagner a figure skating champion is that she works the edge of what she can't do--the triple toe loop, the triple combination at the end of a long program--the whatever no one has done before. That is why she, as other figure skaters, falls during practice and competitions. In fact, she has fallen infinitely more times than I have--a non-skater. The same is true of champion gymnasts, snowboarders, boxers, and runners. But teachers are supposed to be perfect each time they enter the classroom--to know all there is to know about the subject, to have all the answers, to bat (using another metaphor) 1,000 all the time. How many balls did Willie Mays drop to become a Hall of Famer?

          This pressure for teachers to be calculably perfect all the time creates dummied-down teaching-to-the-test methods; litter box pedagogy for coverage and control; yellowing lecture notes; student worksheets with thick, over-copied words; and students struggling for their individuality in make-wrong environments. After all, isn't it all about guessing what the teacher's thinking? This model of teaching produces mediocrity and boredom--for teacher and students, both. It's as safe and predictable as never putting on the skates, at tall.

        Pablo Picasso said, "I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” So how to work the edge--the "that which I can not do" in the classroom? 

        Research? In this age of proliferation, no matter how many articles I read on Measure for Measure, there will always be more. If I spend my time ferreting articles and books--filled with anxiety that I will be missing something to tell my students, I will be so over-gorged with information that there will be no space for them to learn how to learn our subject, themselves.  What they will be learning is to take notes and tests. What they will be learning is that there is a right way to think. We will all be dutifully skating around and around the periphery of the rink--holding onto the rails.

         As a teacher, I am far more than a database. I am a coach, a witness, an energizer, a negotiator.  One of the most interesting classes I ever taught was an experiment: I did not reading the story we were going to consider the next day. Since I had nothing to say, literally, the students took off from the moment I asked "Did you like the story?"  They sensed that I wasn't waiting for them to stop talking so I could hold forth with some mythical perfect interpretation. I learned who they were as readers, what they noticed, what mattered to them.  I did NOT pull the "What's the main point?" shut-upping question, because there were so many points of interest that I, unprepared, would not have known. I asked a few open questions--didn't have time for more, because the discussion was so rich: Which character interests you and why?  Where in the text did you get engaged?  We discussed what they didn't like.

        In most classes, I am constantly choosing materials which I am newly exploring, haven't considered for a while, or not from some new perspective.  I come into the class excited, as at the beginning of most adventures, not knowing what will happen.  But I trust my students and I trust myself.  We explore together. We take pleasure in creating an interpretive community. What do I model by this? Curiosity. Perseverance. How to ask questions. How to learn. How to listen.  Let me repeat that one: How to listen. They learn to trust their own intuitions and insights.  They learn to trust me--that I won't ax them as wrong.  That it's OK to not know. They learn that knowledge is a vital, negotiable, changing process.  That learning how to fall is necessary for learning how to fly.

       What makes me a teacher is that I have made more mistakes than my students have--and learned from them. What makes me a teacher is that I am always pressing to learn more, to try new ideas and skills--to work/play with the edge of what I don't know. What makes me a teacher is that, as Socrates would have it, I know that I don't know. I measure the success of a class meeting by whether I learned something new.

        Let's not use our students to maintain our egos as all-knowing. Let's help them to develop their own strengths and confidence. Instead of fearing that I might be found wanting, I challenge my students: "Ask me what I don't  know. Know something before I do. Learn how to fall.  Learn how to soar."

       How are you working the edge of what you don't know?

© 2014 Susanna Rich

Saturday, March 8, 2014

"Basically" Means "Generally": How Not to Say What You Mean

(The Lyrics)


♫Words would be very useful
for school and love and work,
if only they would mean
what they mean.

♫I have started (no, not started
but do) to wonder
(no, not wonder but know)—
how we turn words inside out
like (over)sensitive laundry.


♫Basically means “generally,”
Little bit means “a lot.”
How Are You? means
“I wanna tell you ‘bout me
so spare me your TMI.”

I.                   BASICALLY

♫Basically means I don’t know
what to say next.
Once I’ve said “basically”
well, sorta, who can argue against‘t?

♫I had a five-minute presentation
on Ophelia to do,
but Ophelia I didn’t feel ya
so basically I said basically
87 times:

♫“Basically, Ophelia was basically this girl.
Basically, Ophelia was ditched.
Basically, Ophelia was basically a character
in William Shakespeare’s basically Hamlet.”


II.                LITTLE BIT


♫Say a little bit when you’re afraid
to say that it’s “a lot”
or when your family, lover, money
is no one else’s biz.

♫The text buzzes in “Did he ____ you?”
or “Did you ______him?”
“Would you like to ______ with me?”
Or “Did you __________ with _______?”

♫Thumb back “I’m a LB mad, LB broke,
LB bad, LB hurt,
LB in love with someone else
and LB—pregnant.”


III.             YOU, YOU, YOU

My very fave is the use
of second person point of view,
when you really means I—
all that you and your is you
being your own invisible friend.

♫When you’re afraid to own up to
your own experience
or commit to what you say,
it’s more polite to say you, you, you
than me, myself, mine, and I.



♫Pacifiers and qualifiers
and clearers of the throat,
here’s more glossary of what
to say instead of what you mean:

♫Why not? means “Thank you, no”
and “I wish you hadn’t asked.”
Sure means “I doubt it”
and It’s Okay means “it’s not.”

♫Let’s come clean and stop
turn right side out not in.
Words aren’t (over)sensitive laundry.

♫And double negatives
aren’t always positive—
“no never nothing not.”
You say “double positives are never negative,”
and I say yeah, yeah.


♫Basically means “generally,”
Little bit means “a lot”.
How Are You? means
“I wanna tell you ‘bout me
so spare me your TMI.”♫

                       What words do you use to dodge saying what you mean?

© 2014 Susanna Rich

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Monarch Shmoops Off Cliffs, Sending Off Sparks: The Prison and Misprision of Paraphrase

          As I read students' first drafts in, let's say, my Shakespeare Survey course, I find myself drifting into boredom and disappointment--which, I know, means they were bored with Shakespeare and probably just Shmooped. Shmooping is my verb for sourcing online summaries and paraphrases--Shmoop, Monarch Notes,  Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, to name a few.

        On Yahoo! Answers students chat with each other to complete their paraphrasing assignment: "Explain the meaning of 'To be or not to be,'" iCarly (sic) writes. I cringe at the word "explain," for it is an invitation to "explain it away," a get-it-over-with mode. And then "the" meaning, as if there's only one way to interpret, and Shakespeare is just hiding it. Even a shopping list deserves more hermeneutic respect than that. The answers to iCarly are even more disturbing.  Here's Bob's response: "It's really along the same lines as 'Do or die'- it really just means do something, or don't do it. At least, that's what I think it means..." Or Krystina:  "just go to and click on no fear Shakespeare."  Sure, let's get someone else 
to figure it out.  And, by the way, let's emphasize that Shakespeare is someone to fear. All this while ads for face lifts, images of storm-troopers, and the Geico gecko vibrate, flash, and fade in and out on the screen.

         Paraphrasing is a one of the core "skills" that we teach in our schools. But it is prison and misprision. Because paraphrasing is such a default mode--an invitation to shut down when you've "got it right"--I have done the unthinkable: I forbid paraphrase and summary.  I also relegate plot to the least important aspects of literature qua literature. Here is the official notice in my syllabus:

            "Any plot review systems, including, but not limited to CliffsNotes, Monarch Notes, SparkNotes,   Shmoop and online chats are not acceptable sources for developing literary appreciation and interpretive depth...This course is an opportunity to develop yourself as an original thinker.  Any papers that rely on summary, paraphrase, or plot outline will not be accepted for a grade."

         Paraphrasing exercises are perfect for assembly-line education--of teaching to the test and standardization. Paraphrasing teaches students that literary interpretation is boring, laborious, and disappointing. It tempts them to plagiarize. Paraphrasing teaches them that literature is somehow objective, something to do for someone else's approval--for the grade. Paraphrasing creates a power struggle, a get-it-right atmosphere in the class--frustrating to all. As a passionate reader, writer, and teacher, I find this abhorrent.

         But, but, but? Let's remember with Robert Frost, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." And, Will knew this better than anyone--"a rose by any other name" would not be as sweet. What makes literature is not what it "says" but, to use John Ciardi's word how it says.  Let's return to "to be or not to be." What are some of the interpretive strategies we have to appreciate how Shakespeare characterizes Hamlet through language? The simplest is to look for language patterns, what Gertrude Stein would call "what repeats":

          the line starts with to be and ends with to be
          the word "or" is like a fulcrum of a seesaw between the start and end of the line
          to be and not to be are opposites
          to be is an infinitive verb  (at this point, I'm wondering why it's called "infinitive")
          to be is the most abstract verb      
          to has the lowest, most depressing sound-frequency vowel oo
          be has the highest, most energetic sound-frequency vowel ee
          the ts seem to spit here      
          there are no images in this line, the emotion is carried through sound
         What meanings might we draw from these few observations?  That Hamlet is seesawing between extremes. Given the sound patterns, he seems to be emotionally bipolar.  Since this is the beginning of his soliloquy and there are no images, we can hypothesize that words, themselves, are important to him--perhaps more than images, which are grounded in the body.  Since to be is the most essential of verbs, he's asking a very large question. Playing with the idea of the infinitive, he might believe in eternal life. We could then look for these and other patterns in the rest of the soliloquy and the play. The only use a paraphrase would have here is to show how utterly inadequate it is. To quote Bob, "It really just means doing something, or don't do it."  Duh.

          Speed-dial, For Dummies, Twitter Shakespeare. Paraphrasing is an instrument of instant gratification; of having, as Shmoop so jauntily puts it, Shakespeare in a "nutshell"; of avoiding fear, instead of embracing it as a necessary part of literary adventure and discovery. Paraphrasing digitalizes literature into right and wrong. It is handy for surprise quizzes and grade books. Paraphrasing hearkens back to the inferiority complex literature studies had when there were no English Departments. To establish credibility, scholars had to prove they were "scientific" and "objective." Now we have business as a model for academic credibility--make it quantifiable: multiple-choice-easy to calculate. One of my most gifted students and now brilliant teacher failed the praxis four times.What makes literature literature is that it is infinitely generative. That it resists reductio ad absurdum.

         We have been reduced, as teachers, to a litterbox model for education--coverage and control. Students know this, if only unconsciously.  They resist being herded with mechanical exercises.  They resent being told what to think. They resent being made to regurgitate.  You can fill in the metaphor from here.

         Mort reminded me of when paraphrasing exercises were called precis:  reduce Hamlet to three sentences.  Then why have Shakespeare at all?

© 2014 Susanna Rich

Saturday, February 22, 2014



I’m floating in space in a helicopter, somewhere between the sun and the earth.  About all I can about my home planet is that it’s a blip of light, like the illuminated tip of a fingernail. It seems, when I reach my hand toward it, as if I might be able to hold the whole earth between my thumb and index finger.  But, of course, it’s an illusion—I’m only squeezing stale cockpit air—a false sense of control, to think I could hold a planet in my hand.  Even the image of the earth entirely disappears between my finger pads.

It’s quiet here.  The rotors have no work to do because there is no gravity to resist.  No sound, other than the vents and my own breathing.  No smell other than the accustomed ionized air.  Little motion.  I am utterly alone.  Utterly trapped.  Once my supplies diminish, I will have no recourse but to expire. 
            Better descend toward earth, while I can. The cockpit fills with the sounds of chattering instruments and the thump-thumping rotors. A million miles away, I notice colors—the blue of oceans dividing the mottled green and brown lands, the white, paisley shaped patterns of clouds.  I have a lot more to say about the earth.  There’s North America on the upper left, South America to the lower right.

             I want to go home.  So I steer my chopper over the United States.  I’ve lost my view of South America and most of the Atlantic, but there are the two crazy zippers that are the Rockies and the Appalachians.  And the Great Lakes reach into the continent like a ragged umbrella or a monster hand.  And, hello, the states are not divided neatly into alternating red or blue splotches. 
            At 62 miles above the earth, I hit the Kármán Line—where the earth’s atmosphere hits outer space.  My craft is shaking, my instruments rattle, I feel as though I’m going to explode into smithereens.  But what safety do I have with dwindling supplies?  Better to disintegrate in an instant than to freeze, suffocate, and starve out in space. 
            I survive the re-entry.  I descend over the trickle that seems to be the Mississippi River.  As I veer south, I lose the monster hand to the north.  The waters widen.  I descend over Louisiana.  Zoom in on New Orleans.  And here are the streets, like the grids on a digital chip, the buildings rising like bristle, the sunlight glinting off glass.
            In time, I land—the whip of my chopper blades scatter a stray plastic bag, like jellyfish on a mission.  The gravity tugs hard on me—come on down. It will take the most fuel and concentration, now, not to land hard.  I’m still spinning my rotors.  I can hardly hear for the roar of thrusters.  I’m dizzy with anticipation and fear.  I have been out in space, too long.
            Then the thud.  Solid ground below me.  As the chopper blades whip to rest, my ears feel as if they are stuffed with cotton.  I have trouble focusing, so unused I am to stillness.  But I’m OK.  I can let go.  No chugging engine, no spinning wheels, no fear.  I push open the door, against hard suction.
            A gentle breeze, wafting with the sweet smell of—yes, gumbo.  There is life here.  Out of the cramped helicopter and zero gravity, it will take me some time to reorient myself.  But oh, how much to experience with my ears, eyes, nose, tongue, skin.  Although I can’t seem to hold the entire earth between two fingers, I am happy to hold what I can—a greasy potato chip, the slight moist of a warm palm held out to me.  All of my body—held and holding what is real.  Just look at this feast for the senses:

                 “Land the helicopter,” I tell myself and my student writers and readers.  There is a false sense of power in interpreting the world from the far distance of generalities and abstractions. “But if I don’t write about the whole play, cover every aspect, I won’t be able to get five pages out of it.” That’s like saying, “I have to write about the USA, France, and Kenya to fill up five pages.” Instead of writing a general paragraph saying things about Shakespeare that everyone knows, anyhow, I land my helicopter on the first word Horatio says in the Hamlet—“Friends”—and let that word lead you through how Horatio is a friend in the play. I’ll have only ten lines to write about love, in general, before realizing that it’s all clichés; and that I’m straining to find more words; and that I’m writing to get it over with. I write, instead, about feeding my ailing mother her favorite Kozy Shack chocolate pudding, how I choose a red plastic spoon because she’ll be able to see it and it will be easy in her mouth, and so on, until I wipe her lips—with what? I’ll have to specify.

            And, yes, I have to relinquish the sense of power that comes from the illusion of holding the world in my hands. And I have to take courage to confront my fear of  nothing to say, just as I had to weather the fear of exploding as I entered the Kármán Line in my helicopter. But rather than “spinning my wheels” in the la-la of blah-blah-blah empty, ungrounded talk, I choose the life-supporting particulars that sustain, nourish, and validate. All that coming home, being real, and belonging—the soft hemlock trees waving their tops to me from my window, the gurgle of my humidifier, the clicketying and the soft edges of these keys.

            How are you landing your helicopter?

© 2014 Susanna Rich