E-mail to a student

Replying to a student who asked – respectfully, she’s nice upon nice, but persistently – why she got an A- not an A for participation, and so an A- for the course. It was going to trash her 4.0.


Sorry for my delay responding; I’m just back from the AWP conference. It’s important to understand that an A is a rare and exceptional grade. Or it should be, if grades are to mean anything at all. In fact A’s have become common in our field, because grade inflation is rampant in the humanities.

That’s especially true in creative writing, maybe because grading in this field can’t be justified empirically or pedagogically. So we grade high, because of the warmth of the relationships we cultivate with our students, and our knowledge that they will in turn be grading us, in their evaluations of us. The latter factor is all the more pressing for adjuncts like myself who have to deal with chronic job insecurity.

Every time I give a low, or even a lowish grade, especially towards the end of the quarter, I think to myself, and I hate it that I do, “How’s this going to affect the evaluation this student gives me?” 

This is more context than you asked for. But my point is, the system is a crock. These grades are fictions. They have nothing to do with your worth and surprisingly little to do with the worth of your work. 

If I can presume to advise you. Be in school for the intrinsic value of it. The people you meet, the values you have tested, the skills you pick up, the insights that come as you put X and Y and oranges together.

Also? A GPA of 4.0 will not be better for you than a GPA of, say, 3.9. No one should get a 4.0. Maybe in high school, where the college admission stakes are insane, but the game’s different now. With a GPA of 4.0 you risk looking to say an employer like you went to a fluff school or did a fluff major. An A- or two on your transcript will help it to look it more real. A touch of grit, if you like.

Anyway, grade inflation. It’s a big problem. And I’m committed to not worsening it. So I grade tougher than some creative writing teachers do. But I do put a lot of care into grading fairly.

All right. You asked why an A- and not an A for participation. I gave generally high grades for participation in this class because there was really good group cohesion and everyone contributed to that. I liked you guys a lot. An A went to the, I think 2 people who were conversation spurs – they ventured an idea or a perspective when they couldn’t be sure what I’d think, or whether it was even in the right ballpark. They brought new energy to the conversation, helping to move it forward. They fostered the inquiry.

We all did. That A- means you did, too, a lot. Maybe I went on so long up there about grade inflation because I’d love for a student to be delighted to receive an A- for their work in my class. I can’t say what an A- means in another class, but in mine it means you and your work have my respect and admiration.

Chris


I see a tension rereading it. I say grades have surprisingly little to do with the worth of your work. And I say her A- has a definite meaning, that she and her work have my respect and admiration.

Maybe, in trying to soften the blow of an A-, I’ve bent over backwards, nice on nice, same as I said my student has. I do do that. Could be why I see it in her & want, though it’s not my place, to jolt her into being displeasing sometimes.

And yet I do feel both sides are true. It’s my expression of them that’s fallen short, making what seems a contradiction.

First page of The Book of Adam

First page of Before the Planet Ends Us Our Alphabets Will Burn:

Looks like the 26 parts will each be books in concept if not length. A gospel for the human end of the world. Book of Adam, Book of Bethany, Book of Cesium, &c.

All the images on the page derive from this sheet of notepaper I made

and messed with on my scanner. As will all the images in Adam’s book. Soon he’ll turn to a bear, lets the animals name him, learn the script of ants.

A draft of course. Much can change and probably will. For sure I’ve got lots to learn now about page layout – lots of graphic novels to read, ahem, study.

Assignment: Profile of a literary journal

Too whupped, truth be told, to pivot from one vispo project (a draft is done) to another (undone draft awaits) this particular evening. But I got some juice to do something, and so this post. The template I gave my Editing & Publishing students, those who are on the Literary Publishing project. BTW the modular design seems mostly successful, though I see where I can improve it for next time.

The student-centred thought behind it is vital for me. Mostly I don’t want the authority given me by the system and the culture and the process. But I don’t get to just forswear it. If I throw my authority to the winds, that’s an authoritarian move, because only I know what I mean by it, and only I can determine its consequences. I have to own my authority and use it honestly.

And that carries me beyond what I meant to do in preamble for this post. Which too’s a matter of authority, inwardly, and how your thought stream defies it.

The assignment:


Use this template to compose a profile of a literary journal. (You’ll do three of them for your portfolio.) It’s fine if your profile proceeds as a numbered list, answering the questions in turn, but each answer should be in paragraph form. It’s also fine if your answers journey away from the inciting question, as long as the transit yields insights into the journal’s character. Each profile should be 1000–1500 words.

  1. Describe its material design – moves that make it the thing it is, and not another. Print journal: trim size, texture of the paper, fonts used; whether and how it uses images and what sorts of images; cover, cover image, binding; front and back matter. Online journal: its home page; the architecture and means of navigation; use of images and other digital media; what distinctive uses does it make of its online platform?

  2. Describe its formal design – the moves that distinguish how it thinks from other journals in your line-up. What genres are in it, and how much or little does it obey genre boundaries? How does one piece follow another – by similarity, contrast, theme and variation, or maybe haphazardly, by, say, alphabetic order? Do you see trends, thematic or otherwise, among the stories, poems, creative nonfiction, or other genres?

  3. Narrate the journal’s history, as best you can learn it – how and when it was founded, by whom, and why. This is the place to talk about purpose, vision, ethos, mission.

  4. Research one person on the masthead – best is an editor who might be reading work you submit. Google them. Look for their work online or in the library. What have they published? What’s their work like? Are there interviews you can find? Viral tweets or FB posts? What can you learn from these sources about their taste or judgement? (Your sense of an editor’s taste shouldn’t change your work. But it might affect which pieces you send them.) Describe the guesses you can make about their literary tastes and biases, and maybe, if you’re lucky, about the sort of work they’re keen to see.

  5. Describe the journal’s aesthetic – what it seems to look for in the work it publishes. Look at how it describes itself (online, its “about” page, and submissions guidelines, and maybe a GD vision statement) but more at the work it publishes – especially in the genre you’re submitting in. Maybe make a list of adjectives describing the sort of work it publishes, and then put them into sentences: “Journal X likes work that’s …”. Does their description of what they’re up to line up with your sense of what they do?

  6. How well does your work fit the journal’s aesthetic? You might, as you explain, make a Venn diagram – your aesthetic, carefully described, in one circle, and the journal’s aesthetic, carefully described, in another. How do you describe the area where they overlap? All things considered, how optimistic do you feel about submitting to this journal?

Before the planet ends us our alphabets will burn

Read last night The Uninhabitable Earth. A piece in New York Magazine from a year or two back about climate change. The author, David Wallace-Wells, wants to pierce our imaginations with information scientists have been gathering up for years. It can seem like apocalyptic genre fiction, except it’s likely fact, not fancy.

Not much of it was news to me, nor would it be, I think, to you. Space I’ve been in lately though, angry and anxious, sad I know not why, the news feels appallingly new, and my own matters newly small.

Our mother’s turning against us. May need to clean herself of us. And maybe that’s okay. But we might take an interest, since we’re part of it going on. What we’re preoccupied with, border walls, Cardi B, looks pretty minor. Granted, the crucial stuff, CO2 PPM, looks awfully unpoetic. But war looks unpoetic too and we’ve managed to make war poetry to move minds. And what we’re about now is a war on life, itself.

Anyway, this evening, Feb. 14, in love with the floating planet, I imagine a small asemic comic book where a melting alphabet eulogizes the fools who made it, then couldn’t find their way out of the labyrinths they made with it.

In no particular order, elaborating U:

u3 – detail 1
Into the storied forest.
u1 – detail 1
Eyes, this way, that.
u2 – detail 1
One’s eye goes out!
u4 – detail 2
Many huddled there.
u6 – detail 3
There’s no name for it –
u7 – detail 3
the mind to come.

It’s nothing much yet, just proof of concept.

Red Black & Blues (III)

Working on Red Black & Blues, my unravelling of a Trump tweet.

I had hoped to draw asemic eye magic straight from his eructations. Turns out I have to stretch and loosen the material verbally before I can spin it visually. From the tweet

 

I’ve gotten by way of cutting dicing and anagramming to this sequence

  1. Please
  2. understand,
  3. there are cons.
  4. Please, unders,
  5. stand there.
  6. Sequences
  7. when people cross
  8. Persephone’s cowl,
  9. whether they have
  10. children
  11. or not, and
  12. dart noon,
  13. cross our Border,
  14. brood or cuss, err,
  15. legally
  16. ill …
  17. many are just
  18. u
  19. sing
  20. children
  21. for their own
  22. sinister purposes.
  23. I respire sunspots
  24. to inspire US press.
  25. Congress!
  26. Congress
  27. must act,
  28. or Cpl. Pence, whose
  29. copper wholeness …
  30. he hath every thew.
  31. Must! act! on!
  32. on fixing
  33. fixing the
  34. DUMBEST
  35. &
  36. &
  37. WORST
  38. immigration laws;
  39. or await slimming ‐
  40. a militarism gown,
  41. animist rim aglow.
  42. I was a grim Milton……
  43. Anywhere
  44. in the world
  45. ye hear anew
  46. in the world.
  47. Vote “R”?
  48. VoteR,
  49. revote-
  50. vote over.

Hard to get right – it’s gotta roll out a story of sorts, while each line makes for a title w/ some spice, and its text gets me to a visual poem. Fifty for the 50 states. There’ll be a part 2, made of short videos, 50 of ’em, gleaning their frames from images such as

he hath every thew (no. 30, alt take)

To wrap, the end note I also cooked up today:

End note

The text is a tweet by Donald Trump, inflating & breaking up.

The images are that text seen from the inside as it unravels.

The colors are those convention gives to the American electoral map.

The whole may be the first & last work ever of ’Pataphysical cryptography.

His words, once they leave him, aren’t his, and have perhaps hearts & minds their own, may speak of a pain our own, could we only decode it.

“Only connect”

Just finished a portfolio, 150 lean & sleek pages, and as many more of student evals, for a teaching award I’m up for, and grateful to be. Maybe I shd just upload the whole GD pedagogical novel, if that’s a genre yet, w/ its doubtful protagonist & his supportive cast of 1,000s, and bellow – HERE. YA. GO.

Instead, just the teaching statement. The only important sentence is the last one.

In my Editing & Publishing class, we were asking about clickbait, and attention as saleable commodity – a vantage that fries my Buddhist ass. Attention is what we live in and offer each other it should be freely, as love. Where’d we be without it? Rocks.

Well, trying to describe an approach that hands some responsibility for the course, its content and character, to my students. I won’t say “flipped classroom,” because bromide, and if I were given such directives, I’d probably do it wrong.

What I do, I have some chance to do right, cuz I stumbled on it, myself.


Teaching Statement

In my pedagogy, as in my aesthetics, I value the concrete over the general, so I’ll try to convey my teaching by way of example. I teach the advanced poetry workshop at Western as “Poetics of the Rhizome.” Taken from De­leuze and Guattari, the rhizome is a way of seeing that emphasizes multiplicity, con­nectedness, interbeing. Diversity, robustly. Or Indra’s Net, but contorted, because Western thought. Ranging among William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Coral Bracho’s selected poems, and Will Alexander’s Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, to name a few of our texts, students face several challenges: (1) Poetry and poetics texts from an outsider Western tradition and from way outside the Anglo-Amer­ican tradition. (2) An arranging idea, the rhizome, it’s hard to wrap your head around. (3) A student-centred pedagogy that has evolved, as my Socratic teaching style has matured, into a collaborative form of co-teaching. (4) Creative exercises simple on the surface but hard to accomplish: Write a poem that enacts spring. Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Write a poem that disputes with itself.

The first half of a class is given to student presentations, which are actually improvisations in co-teaching. Each pair presenting meets with me ahead of time to discuss angles of approach. I pay close attention to the design of their lesson plan – it should be fluid, I tell them, responsive to the moment in the room. I orient them to Socratic method, suggesting they should have, with each question they ask, an issue they want to bring to the fore, and a feeling for how to get there. But they should also know our responses might propose alternative ways there, or open a wholly new line of inquiry. “You’ll be thinking on your feet. When do you stay on track, when do you let a digression keep going? when do you reflect and extend a comment? when do you lean into a term or an idea and interrogate it? when do you leap to something seemingly unrelated, and how can you eventually tie it in?” And of course, I’m modelling Socratic method all quarter long myself. This meta-teaching keeps me on my own toes. In class, at any given moment, I need to decide whether to let be, or raise my hand as a discussant, or help out as one of the co-teachers, or step in as teacher of the co-teachers. The goal here is to democratize Socrates: to hand the role of teacher over to every interlocutor. Evidence of success? Start of the quarter, discussions are hesitant, needing lots of help from me. By the end, they’re running themselves, question, point, follow-up question, counterpoint, dialogue. Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is a surrender of control and dispersal of authority – very much in the spirit of the rhizome.

The second half of each class is given to peer critique. In these sessions, I emphasize non-eval­uative feedback, finding peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when observations take the place of praise and advice. The approach has a downside – the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not – but most students come to prefer it before long. Teaching process, I emphasize the “writ­er’s antennae” – the tingle of excitement, sparkle, or charge, or the weight of irritation or dismay, you feel rereading your own work. I believe everyone has these subtle responses and is perfectly equipped to perceive them. But self-doubt, anxiety, or distraction can make it difficult to attend to them, trust them, work with them. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel.

For their final projects, students construct rhizomes of their own. I set some parameters and then work with each, one-on-one, on the forms their rhizomes will take. The parameters: The rhizome needs (1) to do self-reflection; (2) to include finished poetry of their own; to engage with at least (3) one of the poetry texts and (4) one of the poetics texts we’ve read; and (5) to have a non-textual dimension. I also encourage but don’t require them (6) to engage with Deleuze and Guattari’s essay. These parameters, while they appear formal and procedural, foster rhizome values of anarchy, interconnection, and polyphony. And while the resulting project can be close to a conventional portfolio, I urge them towards bolder ventures, and we take time to brainstorm possible rhizome forms: a hypertext, a conspiracy board, a spoken word set uploaded to You­Tube, a keepsake box of typewritten scraps. The rhizome needs to build difference into its own body, by talking with or about one of the poets we’ve read, and one of the poetics texts we’ve read, and also by having a non-textual aspect, something pictorial or tactile or auditory about it. Diversity of culture, genre, medium, discourse. For by now we’ve come, with the help of Négritude, Sufism, the Haida Mythworld, Spanish Surrealism, Language Poetry, and John Cage’s screwy Black Mountain take on Sunyata, as well as cheerful scepticism about all these thought-boxes, to see the rhizome as an organism taking difference in without effacing its differentness.

My work in “Poetics of the Rhizome” expresses a pedagogy that’s been years in the making, one I’m ready to drop, any part or the whole damn thing, if it looks to be unhelpful. The last time I taught the course, a student came in to talk about her rhizome, because she’d changed her idea. She wanted now to do a rhizome “about” life and death, or maybe death and rebirth. Was that specific enough? I checked in with my sense of this student, her liking for arranging schemes – her book proposal in my Editing and Publishing course had been for an encyclopedia of all pagan faiths – and compared that to the sharp little momentary poems she’d started making, with no grand designs, just edgy perception and a brave unfinishedness. This assignment could be bad for her. I said, maybe you should just drop the whole rhizome thing. Make five to eight poems, like the ones you’ve been doing. And write something about them and a couple of the readings, you know, but no big deal. She said, I like the sound of that. I said, then you could look at the poems you’ve made, see what they have to tell you, maybe there’s an idea for a rhizome in them. But trust their intelligence; don’t push them around. She looked relieved. My teaching philosophy is, only connect.


Coda

The only meaningful thing I have to give, most of the time, is my attention. Which fixes nothing but is not nothing. I know cuz the gaps I find in me, the grievous gaping ones, most have been left by someone’s inattention; my own or another’s. Most of the rest are attentions I couldn’t say no to, and really, that’s inattention of a sort, too. And now we’ve made attention, which is the kindness that binds us – ensconcing a child’s eyes in its mother’s & settling them both in the body of unassailable & enduring love – now we’ve worked out how to make it fungible on the open market. That’s what to #Resist.


Postscript. Even as I was writing, Stephen Colbert was making the same point, in his own adorable way.