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?


  1. There are days in my life when I have to be hit over the head in order to find inspiration (I’m really having a tough time with Dr. Chandler’s class right now and need to come up with a plan before Monday—yikes!). Other days it just comes to me within the blink of an eye. This week’s inspiration started with a set of three elephants: in Pragmatics class (ENG 5171) we were discussing an elephant as a representation of the Republican Party; then I saw a short video about a bull elephant, which comes to a family swimming pool for a drink (obviously not in our area), while the family was in the pool (no one moved or got hurt during the filming of this event…don’t try this at home); and then your blog post about “Training the Elephant” appears. These elephant ideas brought me back to the day that I visited Lucy the Elephant in Margate City, NJ, which is just above Atlantic City.

    Lucy the Elephant is a sight to see! She is a building in the shape of an elephant and is located right near the boardwalk in Margate City. If you'd like to climb up inside Lucy, there is a price to see her insides, which houses some interesting artifacts, as Lucy is a museum. Lucy even gets her toenails painted once a year during an event with children, who get to choose the color for the coming year. Her current paint job is a French manicure with purple nails. Imagine that! If you've ever seen the movie “Moulin Rouge” then you can imagine Lucy is the elephant building in which Nicole Kidman’s character lived—it looks very much like Lucy.

    This week there was a total lunar eclipse, which sort of resembles a French manicure when the eclipse is about 1/3 done. Though I wasn't awake to see this week’s eclipse (I’m sorry, but I’m not getting up at 2 a.m. on the off chance that I’ll see this eclipse, since it was cloudy when I went to bed at midnight, and a rain storm was moving into our area), I have seen enough lunar eclipses to know what it looks like. The moon inspires a lot of creativity in a lot of people—songs like “Moon River” and “Bad Moon Rising”; or the TV shows “Moonlighting” and “The Honeymooners”; and let’s not forget the children’s book “Goodnight Moon”, which was a favorite bedtime story when my children were young.

    So, how do Lucy the Elephant, her painted toenails, and the moon inspire me? It brings me back to think about my mother, and how she never painted the moons on her fingernails. (The moons are that whitish crescent at the base of a nail bed. I only have moons on my thumbnails, but my mother had moons on all of her nails.) When I was young I’d watch her paint her nails a bright red, which sometimes matched, and sometimes didn't match, her lipstick. (She would use her lipstick as blush—she’d smear just a little bit onto her cheeks for that matching glow.) So, today I wrote a poem inspired by my mother’s fingernails and in a roundabout way by the elephant and the moon. I just never know when inspiration will hit me!

  2. As always, Mary Ellen, I delight in your generous and encompassing imagination~you are quite a synthesizer. Thank you for your response~~~

  3. Én elég szintetizátor! (I hope that's spelled right.)

  4. I feel like I have this problem. I don't really know what I want to do yet in life. After , I graduated high school and came to college because thought that was the natural/common thing to do. Plus, I wanted to be successful and yada yada yada. But Ultimately, I feel lost as I get closer to attaining my degree. I really don't know what I want to do after college. The main thing that comes to mind when I think that is more college. Hence Graduate school. I feel like I'm doing the right thing because I was a delinquent kid throughout middle/high school. So to be in the position I'm in right now really leaves a lot of people from my past astounded( Old Friends and Teachers). really find happiness in that because I'm proving people wrong. That's another reason why I chose to double major. But Other than that I don't know what I really want to do . I'm a simple person. I Like simple things. Spending money on doing activities doesn't guarantee fun. I know that because I've experienced it Sometimes I want to just be alone and just roll a blunt smoke and relax and just enjoy nature. Plus, it depends on how I'm feeling if I want to do something. I don't know,hopefully I figure things out soon.

  5. One basketball or stick at a time, Jaleel. I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. This radical freedom is our legacy as humans. How do we want to use it?

  6. As I am beginning to student teach I see a lot more of these bored eyes scan my classroom daily. The students try to re-direct their focus on anything but me. Sadly, they know that when the teacher is finished talking at them and asks them to complete an assignment, they just have to do it the assignment to the expected student standard and they'll 'pass.' I have yet to meet a kid that writes and hands in work how THEY want. And a majority of those students are also the ones that “hate writing” because they “don’t know where to start” or how to “write from a prompt.” But I'm not here to talk bad about the students of today because I was one of those students. Sadly enough that student will still come out of me. I constantly ask myself if I think I wrote “enough words or pages.” But I have been training myself recently to not ask if what I wrote is “enough” anymore. I try asking myself if what I wrote comes from my heart and is of quality, not quantity. It’s help changed the way I write and no longer feel pressured that I’m not doing enough. Because now I have learned that I am doing plenty, for myself specifically not for my teacher. However, the question that still remains for me is how can we change the way these things are taught? How do we un-teach them that it’s not the quantity of pages I am asking of you, but the quality?

  7. Dr. Rich,

    After reading this, I recall the first class we had together. This class was difficult because you had us own the "I" and think about what we wanted from our writing. When I would ask a question, and it was too specific about what YOU wanted from MY writing, you left it open for interpretation. I'd like to thank you for that. I believe you being open to my interpretation of an assignment has helped me grow as a writer and poet.

    I currently tutor students in k-12th grade. (I know it sounds crazy to have students being tutored so young. But this is what the company offers.) In the past, I have given my students specific prompts to write from. If they skewed from the main idea, I'd correct them. Now, I have a bigger picture for my students. I want them to change up the prompt. I want their ideas to flow. I want them to want to write how they want to write about what they want to write. I allow them a free range of ideas and allow them to make their own decisions. In school, they are strapped down too heavily and I want them to know that when they come for extra help, or time to take a step up from where they currently are, they will have my support and they will be able to write freely and ENJOY it.

    I have one student in particular who I think about when writing this. She would come into the writing studio every week and huff, "only 90 minutes," she would say. We have a magazine publication, and she has been coming to the studio for four years and only published once when she was younger. A few months ago (after your class), I encouraged her to free write. I told her she had no restrictions. I told her if she felt a fragment should be used, to use a fragment. I told her that her ideas should not be constrained and she doesn't have to worry about judgement. -- Amongst many other suggestions you have mentioned in class, I have used these to guide her. I'm DELIGHTED to say that when she comes into the studio, there is not more huff and "only 90 minutes," but a, "I'm not sure where I want my story to go ... maybe i'll just start writing and see where it takes me." I LOVE THIS. IT MAKES ME SO HAPPY THAT I HAVE TO WRITE IN ALL CAPS! :)

    - Paige Bollman