“Such a self-conscious use of difficult and indeterminate passages ‘prevents the reader from consuming them at a gulp and throwing them away’ and instead, demands the active participation of readers in the construction of meaning”(Bannett 1989, p.9 cited in Lather 1991 p.11)

Of course one use the reader may put such difficult and indeterminate passages is in the trash where there will be more active construction of compost than meaning. Yes, it can be fun to dip into Finnegan’s Wake and actively construct meaning, and yes such effort can be quiet rewarding, but is it a true construction of meaning or simply a translation into my own language of what I want the meaning to be.

“If one is always situated in ideology, then the only way to demystify these ideological operations . . . is to occupy the interstices of contesting ideologies or to seek the disjunctures and opposing relations created within a single ideology by its own contradictions” (Teresa Ebert 1988 p. 27 as cited in Lather 1991, p. 11)

And these interstices of contesting ideologies and disjunctures and opposing relations create an ideology in and of itself. I don’t see how one can separate oneself from an ideology through interruptions or deconstruction: isn’t that simply another construction in which to hide and to hide from one’s assumptions. Where one decides to create a breach in an ideology is determined by the controlling agent who makes the decision to leap into the breach. Even if one is constantly self-reflective to the point of self-evisceration one is still acting from a belief system that assumes the value of such subjectivity in the same yet opposite fashion that the positivists assume that they are objective. Years ago when I listened to one of the Profs at Bread Loaf deconstruct Emily Dickinson, I wondered if he was spending too much time avoiding a position in order to avoid having to defend that position. In the beginning of Patti Lather’s “Getting Smart” she claims that her “interest is in the processes by which theories and practices of meaning-making shape cultural life, specifically how research and pedagogy might be positioned as fruitful sites in which to pursue the question of a postmodern praxis.” (Lather 1991, p. 11). I wonder if too much is made of the different paradigms’ differences. Maybe that is where the post-paradigm Diaspora comes in: it takes a village of paradigms to make a world. Nietzsche said, “In the end one only experiences oneself.”

I finished Ann Lauterbach’s book of poetics today and have started Patti Lather’s “Getting Smart.” With luck I will glean some sort of understanding that I can articulate by the end. She quotes someone who quoted Lacan (is that or is that not postmodern!?), “. . . to read does not obligate one to understand. First it is necessary to read . . . avoid understanding too quickly.” Which reminds me of something I read once when I was in a Carl Jung phase: “Interpretations are only for those who don’t understand; it is only the things we don’t understand that have any meaning.”

Which gives me hope since I don’t seem to understand much of anything: so I must be chock full of meaning.


The Question Echoes an Answer Back

from a distance all edges blur
like the adirondacks and the sky
twenty miles across the valley

years pass and the day to day
travails tumble into dust
what was for dinner, who said what

today like yesterday was a day
coffee newspaper errands then home
chains of assumption click closed

are you happy now compared to when
or has acceptance lulled your expectations
into a mere semblance of desire

Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a “you” around the naming and speaking I. But this “you,” come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings an otherness into the present. Even in the here and now of the poem– and the poem has only this one, unique, momentary present– even in this immediacy and nearness, the otherness gives voice to what is most its own: its time.
Paul Celan

But every time the sun makes a gold scrim across the trees, which is any morning without cloud, there is simple amazement, a desire to hold it in place, but it goes, and comes again, and goes, and so forth, so one is, finally, glad for the repetition which erases the fear of only once, once only.
Ann Lauterbach

I have been reading the poet Ann Lauterbach’s The Night Sky, Writings on the Poetics of Experience since slightly before classes let out; both of the above quotes come from there. I find this reading so much more interesting and enjoyable than the research articles I read for class. Maybe I am in the wrong field, or maybe I find comfort in the abstract. When I first started teaching whenever I was tense (pretty much all the time then), I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. For years I have seemingly searched out difficult writers obsessing over multiple volumes of their works. I am never sure what I take from them; nothing that can be summed up in a succinct paragraph. Yet for years images or ideas I have gleaned from them come back to me. I suppose they make up the constellation of my thinking. I like puzzling out the ideas and concepts embedded in the essays while luxuriating in the beauty of Lauterbach’s prose. Most of the book is concerned with writing, poetry specifically, although the last two essays came out of the 9-11 attacks. Lauterbach lived near the WTC and about a month after the attacks she wrote her response. They are, like most her work, lovely and complex.

Today is the last day of school, my seniors finished two days ago so I have been dismantling my room for the summer cleaning. The downtown admin has threatened to throw away all personal items left in the rooms, so everything has to be taken down and stored for the summer. No wonder some teacher’s rooms resemble empty rent a storage boxes all year, too much trouble to keep putting stuff up each year only to have to drag it all home at the end of the school year. I have to hang around until two to help with the graduation practice, then tomorrow meet them all down at the Drum to watch them walk across the stage. They try to be so blasé about it, but tomorrow they will be nervous and excited as if they were going on a first date. Even the seniors are cute in their youthfulness.

This evening just before dusk I trimmed a large pink rose bush my wife planted near our front door. It had been damaged by the hail storm we had a few weeks ago, and also had some kind of rose disease. However, the main reason I was trimming it was because it was overgrown and out of control. I have never known what I was doing when I have pruned trees or bushes in the past. I always start out slow, snipping small bits here and there, then gradually cutting larger and larger branches as I figure out where the bush can be cut. It is intuitive and in all probability not very precise, but the plant is forgiving enough and within a few weeks looks the better for what I have done. Now here is where if I were arrogant enough I would make an analogy between the rose bush and my students, but I don’t think I ever progress past the initial slow snipping with them. I can see the benefit of a one room school house where the teacher would work with a student over the course of several years. Yet, when I look at some of my students at this time of year, I am thrilled to think that I only have to listen to them for a few more days, then I am rid of them. Teaching is such an odd thing. We never, really, see the end results of what we do in our classrooms. The students leave before whatever we did has a chance to bloom, if it ever does. And if something does occur there is no way to know if it was due to what you did or perhaps some other teacher, or fellow classmate, the student had years ago. I guess the guiding principle should be to just try to do no harm, with both the rose bushes and my students.

I leave with a quote, that has little to do with the above, but it is pretty and intriguing:

The flesh sources indefinitely, never moving away from the setting that gives rise to it. The flesh opens, petal after petal, in an efflorescence that does not come about for the look, without for all that avoiding the look. The blooms are not seen.
Unless by an other sort of look? A look that allows itself to be touched by the birth of forms that are not exposed in the bright light of day? Yet, nonetheless, are there. Invisible substrate for the constitution of the visible. These gifts give themselves in the direction of an outside that does not cross the threshold of appearance. They suffuse the look without being notice by sight. Irrigation by a sense-intuition that flows back and forth from the flesh to look, from the look to the flesh, with neither the ek-statsis that attends a contemplation that has been resolved nor a confinement in lack of light. Irradiances that imperceptibly illuminate.
from “The Forgetting of Air” by Luce Irigaray

With the last paper turned in and the last reading assignment long since put away, I can return, at least for the summer, to following my own reading interests. Over spring break a friend of mine from my master’s program was in town. She said that she swore after we graduated from Bread Loaf she would never read a book she didn’t want to read, ever again. My plan for the summer is to embrace duty-free reading. Oddly, most of the books I have on my list are books brought up in my classes over the last two semesters. I feel compelled to read books, or writers, that keep coming up in class. It seems that if a writer comes up all the time then one should read them to have a clue what people are talking about in the field. Sigh, so even my freedom to read comes with restrictions. How existential.

Anything, except writing words on paper, can be a way to mediate in a multimedia manner a student’s thinking in regard towards a text, from drawing pictures to playing with toys. The use of toys to help write stories reminded me of my third grade teacher Ms. Nugent, who in 1969 had us write short stories with our favorite stuffed animal as the main character. At that point I only had one stuffed bear, all the other toys I had had were thrown away smelling of smoke, when my oldest sister set a chair on fire after smoking cigarettes with her friends at lunch. The curse of unsupervised teenagers. I remember the story had something to do with the bear going to the moon (remember the year) by stowing away on one of the Apollo missions. I suppose this is also an example of intertextuality since I was combining information I had brought to the text, constant moon coverage from Life magazine, with various adventure stories I had heard. or read: Sunday Nights watching The Wonderful World of Disney, The Hobbit, Grimm’s fairy tales, Comic books. This was similar to the way I am bringing this story/memory to bear in order to mediate my understanding of the texts we read for class. I tend to write about selected memories that somehow relate to what I have read: a transactional moment. I wonder how the memory is transformed in its reformulation as a tool to understand the present text as well as the way the partial absorption of the text into my story transforms the unfolding of the tale I tell. The infinite unfolding of Dante’s multifoliate rose (Being/God) at the end of the Paradisio also comes to mind here, since one can never divorce one’s life from creation of meaning.
* * *

The story trails beyond its end.
sotte voce echoes of echoes reshape
an ear many years and miles away.
Who speaks : who listens.

in his big hands dad held
books like flowers on his lap
reverently turning pages
with fingers torn and swollen
from decades of labor

i build walls with my books
shelves surround the room
like sentinels at each corner
protecting me from the onslaught

ezra disappears into stories like rabbits
into a warren, resurfacing
with delighted giggles or
stunning insights on
the darkness he discovered
beneath the words

each of us finding ourselves in the pages of the book

Lit In America Part One

So: literacy is the key in fighting the power; or the key to oppressing the insufficiently literate. It’s funny how power flows along two paths, maybe more. This does explain the obsessive focus of the current regime on standardized testing. While sounding as if they want “no child left behind,“ I think it is more an attempt to destroy the public education system, because it is easier to control the ignorant. “Although in principle literacy is a foundation of American democracy it is in practice a troublesome source of inequity and disequilibrium in the administration of justice. Knowing how to read enhances political and economic rights, whereas not knowing how to read diminishes them.” (Brandt 2001, p. 47) Several years ago when this idea of the destruction of the public education system first popped into my waking life, I dismissed it as dangerously conspiratorial; and since I have had a couple of long friendships implode due to their being consumed pod-people-like by conspiracy theories, I am extremely leery when my own thinking drifts in that direction. Yet I see it stated fairly explicitly in much of the reading I have been doing in the last six months, “The knowledge that the elite’s control may be their strength but it also constitutes their vulnerability. Saul says of the elite’s that the ‘possession, use and control of knowledge have become their central theme-the theme song of their expertise.’ He(Saul) believes that ‘their power depends not on the effect with which they use that knowledge but on the effectiveness with which they control its use.” (Saul 1992, p. 8 as cited in Crotty, 2003 p.113) This would also explain the turn in what constitutes “knowledge,” especially in education, where only replicable positivist research is now being funded by the federal government. Science, which is not as exact as the myth perpetuates, can make us all into fact filled automatons which are easier to control because we are not taught to think on our own or accept our own authority as equal to the credentialized monolith. An ironic statement as I make an attempt to become a part of the credentialized monolith with this doctoral program.

Popping Off

I have never really had a problem with using pop culture in the classroom. I also am a strong advocate for “high” culture in the classroom. Any thing that gets a student to read, to start to analyze and reconfigure the world through text, is a good thing. I allow (quite magnanimous of me I know) my students to read whatever they wish to read as long as it is a book: that includes Inyashu as well as Stephen King and Jane Austen. Personally I would rather they read Inyashu than King, but then I have an unreasonable bias towards King since I read once that he had separate rooms in his house for drafting, revising, novels and screenplays. I privilege “high literature” explicitly poetry, through my use of it in mini-lessons and free response prompts at the beginning of class, but my students choose the book they are reading and write a response to that book at the end of class often reflecting the focus I created at the beginning of class with the “canonized” text. I think any text a student is able to read and enjoy is a step toward a better world. I would love it if all my students read “the great works,” but not all of my students are able to read them. They are difficult and often more complex than my students are able to manage. This does not mean that my students cannot think about complex issues, they manage quite well with the moral dilemmas that arise in the pop and young adult novels they choose to read. Many, after months of reading the same type of book, move to something different, sometimes even trying an “academic” book, discovering that there just might be something to these books the teacher wants them to read.
I’m not sure just how intense the anti-pop culture crowd is in its hunt to suppress the interests of the student’s literacies. Most teachers I have worked with over the years will do and allow anything in order to get their kids reading. The only elitist attitude I’ve run across comes from the AP program my district has bought into: a fellow teacher likes to have his senior AP students read “A Prayer for Owen Meaney” by John Irving the summer before class begins. He was told this year that he needed to have them read a book of “literary merit.” A term I have never really been sure of its definition; after all, Dickens was a pop writer in his day. The book the district decided to go with for the senior AP students next year will be “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse. Not that this is a bad book, but if they are going to require a book they want the teacher to teach, it should be one the teacher is passionate about rather than one that is taught just because it is a “good book,” or has the patina of depth because it can be a field for symbol hunters to play in.

When I look back at my first essays in college, I wish that I had had some kind of pattern to follow. I remember we read several essays by “real” writers as examples of the kind of essay we were supposed to write that week. I don’t remember this ever being directly stated, or much of any kind of teaching about how to go about actually writing an essay. Much of the talk in class was about the topics of the various essays we read, not on how to go about writing one. The class was taught by a graduate student in English: an English major more interested in Literature than composition. Why would anyone be interested in composition after all, the professors didn’t want to teach it. Literature was the model, not writing. Writing was simply a way to show off what you knew about the literature. No one seemed to realize that the literature was written by someone. My first English advisor as an undergraduate, James Sledd, when I told him I wanted to be an English major to learn to write, said, “One does not necessarily learn to write in English.” He turned out to be prophetic.
I discover as I age and write more that writing becomes easier. Not that I find the words coming to me faster or I express myself better, but rather I do not dread having to sit down and write as much as I did when I was eighteen. I remember the first fall semester of college in 1978, I was taking freshman comp where we had to write the various “types” of writing as laid out by Kinneavy: compare and contrast, persuasive, how to, etc. the standard ‘essays” that came to dominate the testing in Texas as I became a teacher nine years later. I thought I was being tortured; I went to the undergraduate library next to the UT tower found a table near a window and painstakingly wrote out my first college essay, classifying the types of students at my high school. What I can remember about that first essay are the simplistic clichés I stitched together. The brief paragraphs comprised of short choppy sentences. I was very fond of compound complex sentences which tended to contradict themselves; I thought it made me sound smart to have a sentence with a semicolon, not realizing I had little idea how to use one. But I had been taught in high school through drill and kill methodology to write sentences with punctuation, so I put in the punctuation marks. Not with the free abandonment of Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon,” but not too far from the complete disregard for any kind of sense. What I had to say was secondary to getting the sentences correct. I distinctly remember worrying about how my handwriting would effect my grade. I couldn’t type well enough on an old Underwood manual typewriter (a gift from my mother to her son going off to college) to make the attempt; it would have taken me days, what with all of the tedious corrections with whiteout, to type a thousand word essay. I kept a running account of how far I had yet to go, counting the words after each sentence I wrote. Correctness, or rather how I perceived correctness to be, was the be all and end all. Did I use that word correctly? Did I use a comma where I was supposed to? How many more words do I have to write before I was through? My words, my thoughts, were frozen in fear of violating the rules of correct grammar. How did I come to this? The same way many, if not all, of our students still travel today.
I write all of this after reading the Arnetha Ball article for class: don’t most people, especially first generation college students, go through a lengthy period of composition trauma as they learn the discourse of academia? It would make sense that African-American students would use AAVE in their writing that is after all the discourse community from which they are coming. But don’t working class southern Caucasians also write from the dialect of southern working class Caucasians? Or working class Mainers ? I am not trying to reduce everything, or be condescending; but, this is one of my ongoing conflicts: as a comp teacher . . . do I teach my students (a very cultural and ethnic and economic diverse community) the language of power and money, thereby tacitly oppressing their dialects, or do I work with them foregrounding the problems inherent in language, thus running the risk that I will not help them on the high stakes testing or in the mainstream academic world? The Sweeter the Berry article gives me hope that allowing my students to use “their own language” is the way. “If one does not laugh, then it is not the way” Lao-tze.

Spring Break is a day away. My students are anxious and tired. My seniors are ready to graduate, but still have ten weeks to go. My freshman, a few days ago, signed up for their sophomore classes. Some have come to the conclusion that they have failed for the year; for some in multiple classes, so they have stopped even the pretense of work. I have tried to convince a few of the freshman to take the pre-ap English class offered by the district. Not because I think the classes are all that great, or will help them all that much, but they need to be with other students who read (not necessarily for class) and think about more than the latest Nike offerings or who can beat whom in basketball. I think the students get more from each other than I can ever offer them on my own. Too often we teachers are so caught up in our own chatter we forget to listen to what the students have to say. They really are smarter than we give them credit for. Yes, they have a hard time decoding the texts we deem important, but that does not mean they are unable to decode the complex sets of “texts” they encounter every day in the class, the halls, and in their worlds. They can read the “texts” they are familiar with because these are the texts in which they are immersed. For many of my students (yes, this is anecdotal, but does that invalidate it?), they have read more books since the end of August than they have read during their entire career in high school English classes. This is sad. After spring break I change everything in my classes: we start Shakespeare’s 12th Night something they will begin with dread, but end up enjoying if my past classes are any indication. But for now, spring break is a day away.