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.

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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.

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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).

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

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Read the article here.

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Here we are

I frequently tell my composition students to break the task of academic essay writing into steps that work for them–very Aristotelian of me. Many educated persons were “taught to think” using this method, basically by bundling concepts together into categories. I tell my students that each person may develop a different approach. Sometimes traditional categories don’t work for a particular kind of thoughtful mind.

My own, for example. I have had to study to get to the “rational,” and it intrigues me (science mind! philosophy mind!). But the mythic and the discombobulated and the circuitous: my default consciousness heads into those places when left to wander without a focused task.

A student in my class asked me why I decided to teach college. The funny thing is that it did not feel as though it were a decision on my part. It was a series of steps that seemed unrelated at the time.

One perspective–I graduated with a Philosophy and English bachelor’s degree at the moment of the worst economic period since the Great Depression (the late 1970s). I was a good speller. I got a job proofreading. From there, a series of jobs, and periods without jobs, and marriage and children and a graduate degree and wanting to do a little part time work and teaching poetry workshops in schools…

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Another perspective–I became entranced with poetry as a young adult. I read and read, and I also wrote; joined a writing critique group when David Dunn shyly invited me to the informal weekly sessions in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not fashionable then. I had a job that paid my rent, barely. I wrote constantly, and David encouraged me to read aloud. Ariel Dawson encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. Ploddingly, and without much confidence, I followed my friends’ advice. I learned to speak in public, to groups of people who might not always be open to what I had to say. Later, I raised two children. How like teaching these things are…

I was invited to teach. I tried it. There are tasks at which I am more competent, but I get by. Some of my students thank me.

I still prefer tutoring and coaching, working one-to-one with a student, side by side in the task of urging thoughts into clarity in the form of written text. Here I am. The semester has started. Wrench those random ideas into curriculum, work on word order and concise expression. Be with the student where he or she is. Start there. Be confident. The next step will evolve.

A series of seemingly unrelated events, careers, moves, ideas, loves–those are our human foundations.

And here we are.

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Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.

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I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

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Valuable to know

One of the philosophy faculty members at my college perennially assigns an end-of-term paper in which the freshman student must defend whether (or not) a philosophical principle, view, or argument “is valuable to know.” He has a list of possibilities, such as “Is Descartes’ concept of the body-mind problem valuable to know?” and “Is Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence valuable to know?”

The students wrestle mightily with these essays, although the professor’s question does not in itself constitute a major philosophical argument; even when we disagree with something, we may still feel it is valuable to know. The students do not always recognize that they have to make and defend only the view that knowledge is valuable. They tend, instead, to re-argue the philosopher’s claims…which confuses them, but also works to help them learn what those claims are and how they operate as arguments.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Socrates. This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here.

Philosophy, the art of thinking about thinking, by its very nature creates confusion on the path toward greater understanding. Or anyway, that should be the intention. What I like about this assignment (which I often see when I am tutoring) is the way young people come to terms with the material while they are in the process of composing the paper.

Here is how the tutoring sessions tend to go: I look at the first paragraph for context and clarity. Then I look at the claim and help the student clear up any grammar or mechanical errors. Then the student writes about what, for example, Aristotle’s claims about moral and intellectual virtue are. Usually this section comprises two rather vaguely-worded general paragraphs presenting claims by the philosopher, paraphrased in freshman-student sentences, and two short paragraphs presenting opposing views come next.

Here is where grammar and rhetoric are friends. I read each sentence, and I tell the student what he or she is saying in the sentence–based on how well the student can write or proofread, what the sentence says and what the student meant to say may be rather distant partners. So we work on that. As we plow through the paragraphs, the student gets a chance to re-think his or her arguments about and understanding of the philosophical questions at stake in the essay. Sometimes, I can almost see the lightbulb of comprehension beginning to glow in the student’s mind.

It really demonstrates what I tell my students all the time: Writing helps thinking! And so does discussion. In my office, for half an hour, the student gets a sounding board for his or her own ideas and then writes them down. Not all of my students get terrific grades, but it fascinates me to watch them in the process of coming to understand that pretty much anything can be valuable to know.

 

 

 

Complications

National Poetry Month has rolled around again, and sophomores enrolled in the Poetry classes are trying to interpret poems. Somewhere along the line, people in the USA acquired the notion that teachers ought to make things simple to understand so that students can learn the material. What about diving into the material in order to learn about it? Asking it questions? Having a heart-to-heart conversation with it? Those are alternate approaches to reaching an understanding.

Truly, one aspect of teaching that frustrates me is that the majority of human beings want everything to be simple. “Simple” has become a click-bait word, an advertising slogan. Even the American embrace of mindfulness largely bases its premise on the idea that mindfulness is simplicity itself, when anyone who has seriously attempted meditation and mindful living can attest that the theory sounds simple enough but the practice is more complex than it seems.

Now, I have nothing against simplicity–I yearn for simpler ways of living in the world, myself. Nevertheless, a person does not reach her fifties without a clear recognition of how complicated life is; and no one can deny complexity has considerable value. We would not be human beings, capable of speech and abstract thought and deep love and senses of humor, if it were not for the incredibly intricate operations of neurons and synapses, nerves and hormones, rods and cones, DNA and all the rest that somehow connects us inside our physical corpus.

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blood vessels=fractals=complicated

All of these contribute to our conflicting emotional states, to our individual and, because we are group-dwelling creatures, our communal (cultural) psychologies, morphing into social structures of vast networks and multiple influences. Nothing about any of this is simple.

In an effort to assure my students that they can, indeed, become better writers, I endeavor to simplify the writing process as to structure and foundational principles as much as I can. I refuse, however, to suggest that written expression can be simple–because human expression is not simple. We desire and feel and experience in ways that are complicated, layered, multifaceted–hence not easy to put into spoken words, let alone written ones. Writing is work that requires complicated approaches to thinking and reflecting. That doesn’t necessarily make writing hard, but it does not make it simple.

Writing requires inquisitiveness, which seems to come easily to little children but which doesn’t mean inquiry is simple. One of the things my students struggle with most is asking questions. When I say, “Ask some questions about this text,” they look at me as though I have three heads. Students assigned philosophy papers feel gobsmacked by Socrates–he seems so surface-value simple, but he never answers any questions! And now their professor requires them to ask further questions, rather than asking them for the right answer to a simple question.

Oh, my darlings, if there were truly simple answers we would not have developed art or dance or music or poetry.

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cloud formations (Von Karman vortices) seen from space*

In other words, if everything were simple, we could say what we need to say and all other people would understand everything they needed to know about us without nuance or subtext or background or socio-cultural context, or whether we are secretly embarrassed by our slight lisp, or grouchy because we had a spat with our spouse the previous night. That sounds pleasant and easy, but that’s not how things evolved among human beings.

I would tell my students I’m sorry about all this, but I’m not. Complexity: I revel in it.

 

*from http://www.jessicacrabtree.com/journal1/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/natural_fractals_tibet.jpg

 

How to start

My students often get confused at the beginning of their essays; a common complaint is “I don’t know how to start!”

I feel for them. Beginnings are difficult. Recently I was wondering why that is so.

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Driving home during a blizzard–concentrating on seeing the road, staying off the shoulder, anticipating the curves, watching for oncoming vehicles. Tense, I’m trying not to clutch the steering wheel. Eight miles home seems long when the visibility is nearly zero and the back roads have not been plowed. And then a blur of activity to my right, a thunk against the passenger side window, and a sweeping shape looms in front of me, veers; a fan, dark stripes, pale breast-feathers, strikingly yellow claws. I’ve nearly hit a broad-winged hawk. And that thunk was a smaller bird that had been harrying it through the snow.

Broad-winged Hawk Flying

A startling incident, that experience heightened my awareness of where I am (in the world), in which environments (natural and human-made), and when (now!).

Sometimes, happenstances such as this evolve into, or figure in, poems that I will eventually write. The image, the occurrence, offers a way in.

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Returning to my question about how to start: the blockade many people make for themselves is that they think they have to know what they want to say before they write anything. “What is it I am trying to say?” the writer asks. We have been instructed to keep in mind our aims when we write.

I suggest it may be a mistake, though, to figure out what one wants to say before trying to write. When my student writers are truly stuck at the start, I ask them to write what they notice, what they experience, what they hear. Just write it down, describe it: the soft thud of the sparrow (if it was a sparrow–allow for speculation), the sound of wind against the car body, the clearly-visible buteo in the windshield where before there had been near-whiteout. What is it I want to say about the drive, the shock, the tension, the world of natural things? I don’t yet know, but I am writing.

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Thanks to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Raptor Preserve, Kempton PA.

Safety

I work, and sometimes teach, at a college campus–a small, quiet, safe university surrounded by cornfields and lightly-wooded slopes. The institution has a manual of protocols to ensure the safety of staff and students: lockdown procedures, early alerts, advising on harassment, threat, and signs of various types of needs along with preventive measures, communication protocol, background screening, and referrals. The administration has taken pains to assure the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

It seems that one of the most urgent desires of U.S. citizens is to be safe. We spend millions of hours and dollars on the quest to protect ourselves and our communities. We argue over whose responsibility that should be, though most of us recognize the responsibility–as in any social group–must be a shared one. After last week’s mass shooting tragedy, one Oregon college professor posted an open letter to her legislators (click here for story). Her situation parallels my own except that I have been at my college for many years and am aware of the protocols. But those procedures would be just as useless in my classroom as she envisions they would be in hers.

From a June 2015 New York Times article reporting on the Texas campus-carry legislation: “Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed.” Most lawmakers have never been teachers. I think it unlikely they are aware of the stress and apprehension most of us feel in addition to our interest, concern, and compassion when dealing with a “difficult,” angry, or excessively anxious student. Yet we do not let our fears keep us from doing the jobs we love, disseminating what we have learned through study and experience to others and (usually) actively seeking their engagement in the discipline. That means taking intellectual risks. Occasionally, it means making oneself vulnerable to physical risks as well.

I am not suggesting there is something wrong-headed about wanting to feel secure; certainly that need is basic among human beings, keeping us in groups banded together for safety. But I do wonder whether the craving for safety distracts people from exploring and implementing other, perhaps more helpful, methods of operating as a society. To do so would require rejecting the norm, stepping away from the way we generally tend to do things (the way they’ve “always been done”) and endeavoring to create new approaches to our social maladies.

What might that look like, from the professor’s point of view? Or from the politician’s perspective, or a parental viewpoint? And are we, collectively, ready to take those risks?

photo by Patrick Target

photo, Patrick Target. Mary Mother of God statue above the campus.