What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.

~

I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.

~

§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”

Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.

waterfall

Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.

~

Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).

~

And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.

~

Read the article here.

Do we change? Can we?

I have blogged about the Myers-Briggs personality inventory–a tool that may or may not be useful to psychologists, depending on whom you talk to. Because my father used the inventory in his studies of people in groups, he “experimented” with his family, administering the inventory to the five of us. I was 17 years old the first time I took the survey; my type was INFP (introvert, intuitive, feeling, perceptive), heavy on the I and the F. Has that “type” changed over the years? The “brief” version of the test now shows me moving in the last category, still P but slightly more toward J (judgment). That makes sense, as I have had to learn how to keep myself more organized and ready for difficult decisions. After all, I am a grownup now.

The personality type does not indicate, however, what sort of thinker a person is. Certain types may tend to be more “logical” in their approach to problem-solving, and others tending toward the organized or the intuitive, but what do we mean by those terms? For starters, logical. Does that mean one employs rhetoric? That one thinks through every possibility, checking for fallacies or potential outcomes? Or does it mean a person simply has enough metacognition to wait half a second before making a decision?

Furthermore, if personality type can change over time (I’m not sure the evidence convinces me that it can), can a person’s thinking style change over time? Barring, I suppose, drastic challenges to the mind and brain such as stroke, multiple concussion damage, PTSD, chemical substance abuse, or dementia, are we so hard-wired or acculturated in our thinking that we cannot develop new patterns?

There are many studies on such hypotheses; the evidence, interpretations, and conclusions often conflict. Finally, we resort to anecdote. Our stories illustrate our thinking and describe which questions we feel the need to ask.

~ A Story ~

high school.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-large

This year, I did the previously-unthinkable: I attended a high school reunion.

We were the Class of 1976, and because our city was directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia–the Cradle of Liberty! The home of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall!–the bicentennial year made us somehow special.

Not much else made us special. Our town was a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia, a place people drove through to get to the real city across the river, a place people drove through to get from Pennsylvania to the shore towns. Our athletics were strong, our school was integrated (about 10%  African-American), people had large families and few scholastic ambitions. Drug use was common among the student population, mostly pills and pot. There were almost 600 students in the class I graduated with, although I was not in attendance for the senior year–that is a different story.

But, my friend Sandy says, “We were scrappy.” She left town for college and medical school, became a doctor, loves her work in an urban area. “No one expected much of us, so we had to do for ourselves,” she adds, “And look where we are! The people here at the reunion made lives for themselves because they didn’t give up.”

It is true that our town did not offer us much in the way of privilege or entitlement, and yet many of us developed a philosophy that kept us at work in the world and alive to its challenges. The majority of the graduates stayed in the Delaware Valley region, but a large minority ventured further. Many of these folks did not head to college immediately, but pursued higher education later on in their lives; many entered military service and received college-level or specialized training education through the armed forces.

ann1975-76?

Does this young woman look logical to you?

I wandered far from the area mentally, emotionally, and physically; but then, I was always an outlier. One friend at the reunion told me that she considered me “a rebel,” a label that astonishes me. I thought of myself as a daydreamer and shy nonconformist, not as a rebel! Another friend thanked me for “always being the logical one” who kept her out of serious trouble. It surprises me to think of my teenage self as philosophical and logical. When one considers the challenges of being an adolescent girl in the USA, however, maybe I was more logical than most.

I find that difficult to believe, but I am willing to ponder it for awhile, adjusting my memories to what my long-ago friends recall and endeavoring a kind of synthesis between the two.

~

The story is inevitably partial, incomplete, possibly ambiguous. Has my thinking changed during the past 40 years? Have my values been challenged so deeply they have morphed significantly? Have I developed a different personality profile type? Are such radical changes even possible among human beings, despite the many transformation stories we read about and hear in our media and promote through our mythologies?

How would I evaluate such alterations even if they had occurred; and who else besides me could do a reasonable assessment of such intimate aspects of my personal, shall we say, consciousness? Friends who have not seen me in 40 years? A psychiatrist? My parents? A philosopher? It seems one would have to create one’s own personal mythology, which–no doubt–many of us do just to get by.

I have so many questions about the human experience. But now I am back in the classroom, visiting among the young for a semester…and who can tell where they will find themselves forty years from now? I hope they will make lives for themselves, and not give up.

 

 

9th as new

Last week, I tutored a student on a music appreciation paper in which she was asked to review a concert-going experience. Her family background is culturally rich–but not rich in terms of the Western cultural canon. She had heard the name Beethoven; but until this class, as a sophomore in college, she had never listened to his music. She attended a concert that featured a Liszt sonata, two brief Schubert pieces (Ständchen and one other), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Because I cannot remember not knowing Beethoven’s music, I kind of envy this young woman’s revelations in the concert hall; what must it be like to hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for the first time, as a 19-year-old? I may not be familiar with all of the master’s works, but my parents had some of the symphonies on vinyl back in the 1960s. We listened to classical music on the radio and in church; even commercial television featured famous musical phrases. My sister and I liked dancing around the living room every weeknight to The Huntley-Brinkley Report’s closing theme (2nd movement Beethoven’s 9th).

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

~

Initially, she and I went over the structure of a review and how it resembles an analysis paper. She had used musical terminology reasonably well, and we had grammar and mechanics to work on. What she liked best, she said, was the part with the singers. She found the third movement “a bit boring. I kept wondering if this was the end.” But the fourth movement excited her: “It was really like a celebration or something, and you could see the expressions on the faces of the singers and the musicians, that they were so into it. Like, you kind of wanted to stand up for it, you know?”

Yes, I know–that’s how I have felt when I have heard the piece in concert.

~

Our discussion went on after our work on the paper’s mechanics had ended, though, because she asked me why courses like this one are required for college. Her major is early childhood education, and she says her parents asked her how a course on classical music has anything to do with teaching 4-year-olds.

It turns out I had more to say on that than I realized. Bless her heart, this student was eager to listen. [I have to admit that isn’t as common a response as one might wish.] Many of my friends, I said, are teachers or former teachers; they are among the smartest, most open-minded and curious people I know. They pay attention to contemporary culture and they read about history. They get allusions and references and make clever jokes and know all kinds of things and also, they admit what they do not know and are eager to learn about. They’d play Beethoven for kindergarteners and let them dance to the fast movements and ask them how it feels to hear the slower, sadder late quartets. They might have the children finger-paint to Beyoncé or twirl like leaves to Vivaldi’s “Autumn” or use round colored stickers to make their own “Starry Night” pictures or recite a poem that’s fun to say out loud. Culture is education.

And there’s more, I told her, that has to do with you as a person who understands the culture you are part of. You have to know about politics, especially local and state politics, because teachers need to understand how legislation and budgets can affect income and careers. You might feel uncomfortable in your job if you don’t get your colleagues’ allusions or feel you cannot participate equally in their conversations when the subject turns to culture, history, museums, music, art, policies and fiscal issues. It is fine to admit what you do not know or have not yet been exposed to–but it helps to know where you stand and to show you want to learn.

You’ll learn from your students, too. If you really want to be a good teacher, I said, you will never want to stop learning. Maybe you will reach a point where you don’t need to know a whole lot more about Beethoven, but you will want to explore other subjects. So when you take the required fine arts courses, the required literature courses, the courses in philosophy and math and all that other stuff, realize how all of it will get into your brain somehow, maybe touch a nerve here or there, and help you become a terrific teacher.

Besides, isn’t it beautiful? Even the boring parts…have you ever experienced anything like that before?

“No, honestly,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was up for it, but it was worth it.”

Continuing the discussion

The semester is almost over, and my students and I have spent a few weeks doing writing that relates to Cass Sunstein’s book Why Societies Need Dissent. As it turns out, this semester coincides with considerable current-event attention on protest, conformity, stereotyping, and other issues Sunstein explores in that text. Social media pushes the herd mentality, the “troll” mentality, and the ease of using shortcuts in thinking: justification through bad analogies, irrational responses, barely-considered ideas, culturally-entrenched concepts, knee-jerk reactions.

In other words, the gamut of human social psychology in 140 characters or thereabouts, with links, memes, and dudgeon.

A case in point that appeared on social media last week is a photo of a black man holding a sign that reads, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

That was a photoshopped “joke” in which someone altered the last line of the protester’s poster. The intent was to assert that Michael Brown had robbed a store before walking down the middle of a Ferguson street, and the intent was clearly meant to suggest that Brown deserved to be shot by police–or, at any rate, to suggest that he was not “innocent.” I agree with the poster even in its altered state because I propose that none of us are innocent, and that none of us deserves to be killed. A suspected robber should be tried by jury and should be considered innocent until proven guilty because that is the way US law reads.

I do not claim that “It’s that simple.” Indeed, the situation is far from simple, which is why it feels so fraught and inflames such exertions of logic, law, and character defamation, and so many conflicting opinions–not to mention Facebook “purges” and irate newspaper columns and public protests. These are reasons that discussion can be useful. We need to continue the discussion, even though it is awfully difficult to do so.

~

If only we could listen to other perspectives. If only we could engage in discussion. I listened to two of my male students talking about being stereotyped. One claimed he was seldom troubled by harassment and not really bothered when people tried to stereotype him. “You’re not black,” his friend responded, “You’re Latino, or whatever.” The first man held up his arm: “Hey, man, I’m darker than you. What makes you black and me not?”

“Neighborhood. Money.”

“Look at you, bro! You’re wearing $185 shoes and new jeans. Dollars to donuts your family has more money than mine.”

They continued in this fashion awhile, sometimes asking me what I thought. If it was history that made them different, couldn’t the black man put it behind him? And he didn’t even really know much about “his” history, it turns out. If it wasn’t skin color that made one man feel less sure of himself on the street, warier, even in a “good” neighborhood, to what could it be ascribed? Was it just a personal issue? A neurosis? Was the Latino man clueless, or oblivious? Or just lucky up to now? Are these issues of confidence, self-esteem, bravado, or fear? Social issues or private ones? All of the foregoing?

And how does all of this relate to how young people of any background, religion, or color comport themselves in the world, deal with society and its assumptions, codes, expectations?

~

I teach writing. My job consists in instructing students in the perhaps arcane code that clear, concise, informational, and persuasive writing requires if they are to succeed in writing for academia and, later, the world of business information. I tell them: “This is what you should expect others/authorities to expect of you. It’s your choice to follow the conventions or not to follow the conventions, but you need to at least know what the conventions are.”

Meanwhile, I hope they recognize that they should follow the conventions of the rule of law; and if they choose to oppose the law, they should do so with forethought and initially, at least, within the structure of the law. But bad laws do need to be changed, and bad protocols need to be changed, and unarmed people should not be killed for brooking authority; and stereotyping–a very natural and automatic human behavior though it is–should be consciously questioned, even though yes, that can make the discussion difficult.

Dewey & education

I have taken it upon myself to read Dewey after many years’ hiatus from his remarkably clear prose and his fervent support of free, equal, and accessible education for all. The essays in his Philosophy of Education (Problems of Men) were written between 1935 and 1945 and yet in many ways are relevant to 2014: In his era, technology has led to enormous social changes, as have global conflicts; school districts are under pressure to conform to top-down management and are feeling the pinch as politicians cry for school-tax cuts; more young people than ever graduate from high school and college, only to find that jobs are not available for them; an economically-advantaged elite dis-empowers the middle- and working-classes by using class, money, and networking to subvert or gut the democratic system. What is the philosophical, patriotic pragmatist of 1940 to do? Urge people to exert themselves into action, of course.

Dewey’s passion for education and his pragmatism appeal to me even when I do not wholeheartedly agree with his premises, proposals, or–alas–his optimism. Right from the introduction of this series of essays, he sets out such sensible observations about culture, society, and government that it is hard to disagree with him; his works always begin with a straightforward clarity that is refreshing among philosophers. One of the most trenchant observations he makes, over and again, is that the education of the citizenry must change as social developments occur; education must not remain in stasis and, he insists, democracy must also be flexible and living, always moving with the current times:

“I find myself resentful and really feeling sad when, in relation to present social, economic and political problems, people point simply backward as if somewhere in the past there were a model for what we should do today…We have a great and precious heritage from the past, but to be realized, to be translated from an idea and an emotion, this tradition has to be embodied by active effort into social relations…It is because conditions of life change that the problem of maintaining a democracy becomes new, and the burden that is put upon the school, upon the educational system is not that of merely stating the ideas of the men who made this country…but of teaching what a democratic society means under existing conditions.”

My italics in the passage above are there to indicate what I feel is Dewey’s most enduringly important recognition–that social conditions change, and, to stay vital, the foundations of a society need to be resilient enough to be adapted to existing conditions. Tradition has considerable value, but a too-conservative approach to law or education or any other abstract, social construct will fail in time, Dewey says. There is “an inherent, vital and organic relation” between democracy and education that reflects democracy’s recognition of “dignity and the worth of the individual.” As a person who engages in the task of educating others, and who finds she frequently has to change the curriculum to keep up with the technology and the changing mood and environment surrounding her students, I’m glad to be reminded of that organic relationship. It’s important to me that each individual I instruct, advise, and (in turn) learn from feels that he or she embodies dignity and worthiness.

Much as I enjoy reading and thinking about philosophy, it seldom gives me a “warm feeling” the way Dewey’s well-considered, thoughtful words do. He saw the need for balance and for growth–human growth, interpersonal and social growth–which he posited could be achieved through the conscious, considered, informed actions of well-meaning people in community. Educators are, by such lights, among the foremost in the endeavor. Certainly Dewey thought they were.

larch cones by Ann E. Michael

 

Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

~~

Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

~~

A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

~~

Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

GFS2