On resisting compromises

In response to a white student, active in local protests & passionate about that work, exhausted by it, & frightened by white supremacists in the street & SWAT teams on the roofs nearby, asking that, in consideration of the enormous strain students are under, and so that they can focus on what’s important right now, I cancel the final exam for the whole class.

Dear ______,

I appreciate your sincere and heartfelt words, and I do take them seriously. We need your passion and commitment if crucial changes are going to be made to our unjust, unequal society.

For reasons I’ll try to lay out briefly here, I’m not going to cancel the final. But I can offer you the same accommodation I offered to BIPOC students in our class.

If you feel unable to write the final next week, we’ll have you make it up at another time. That may mean taking an Incomplete (K grade) and getting the work to me after the quarter is done. The make-up would be a short critical essay (1000 words) on ONE of the final essay topics. I’d be reading and grading this essay as finished essay, not as in-class writing, but if you are taking the P/NP option, you wouldn’t need to stress about that.

So why am I not cancelling the final, though it would mean a lot less work for me?

We’re in four simultaneous crises right now: pandemic, economic downturn, systemic racism, and fascist upsurge. You’re out on the street fighting the third. I’m insisting on these standards as resistance to the fourth.

One strategy of fascists, whether they’re on the rise or actually in power, is to attack independent institutions – universities especially. One kind of attack, and this can begin well before a state has become fully authoritarian, is to make it more difficult for us to conduct our business. Instructors, departments, administrations, students too, are put in positions where they have to cut corners, compromise; or just where it would be easier to.

And cancelling the final exam would be a compromise, because it would degrade your education by a little. Studying for an exam, writing an exam, helps students consolidate their learning over the course. Remove the exam, the course is a lesser experience.

If I did what you ask, out of my concern for my students’ anxiety and stress, I’d be giving you a short-term relief, at a long-term cost.

And the cost goes beyond the students themselves to the university as a whole. One instructor would have, because of violent cops and far-right paramilitaries, offered less to, and asked less of, his students. Fascist takeover is the sum of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million such compromises.

I want to assist your fight against police brutality and systemic racism. I want also to remember what resistance to fascism requires. So instead of cancelling the exam, I offer an equivalent.

If you’re interested, I’ve written more about this here.

I hope these considerations make sense to you. If you want to take the alternative route, please let me know.

Thank you for your service,

On a request to cancel final exams in a time of pandemic, racist violence, & erosion of democratic norms

There’s a petition going round, asking instructors at my school to cancel finals for our courses, for Black and POC students in particular, or just for everyone, this quarter.

Here’s what I wrote back to the class as a whole.

My friends,

I’ve received a couple of e-mails asking that, in consideration of the pressures students across the country are under – in particular Black and other POC students – I cancel the final exam for this course.

Having seen the same petition on change.org a few days ago, I’ve had some time to think about the question.

I want to tell you, first, I don’t believe in grades. I hate what they do in us, and to us. Grading is a system we’re inducted in from early childhood, before we can say no to it, that tells us our worth can be measured on a scale.

It’s a terrible thing to tell a person. It serves power, not human beings. Your worth is real, beyond measure. You’re perfect, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing missing.

That’s the place I’m coming from. And so if I had my way, I wouldn’t grade you at all, and our time together would be given to free disinterested inquiry, in a space of mutual respect, compassion, and fiery dispute.

However, I don’t teach at Black Mountain College, or Evergreen State. The structure you and I are in, it calls itself Western Washington University, insists I grade you.

And so, I grade, so that I can teach at all. Hoping that as we go I can invite you to some detachment around grading. Hoping I can grade in a way that spurs learning – of the material, and of appreciation for yourself, your own powers, and your peers, their powers.

Any graded assignment in a course of mine is graded so as to aid learning. Actually, the grade is incidental. If the grade motivates you, do it for the grade. If you don’t care what grade you get – and I hope you don’t – do it for the intrinsic interest of the material, out of your own passion for learning, growing, testing yourself.

Coming back (were you worried I might not?) to the request.

The final exam is not for a grade; the grade is only to focus your mind, your effort. The real point of the final is to consolidate your learning. The studying you do for the exam, the work of writing the exam under some pressure, sinks your learning deeper into you. It helps your free, lively, creative engagement with the material stay with you. It helps the course, everything we took on together, last beyond the end of the quarter.

I’m not going to cancel the final. It’s the culmination of the course, where you draw together everything you’ve learned to a single focused light that illuminates – you, to yourself.

Please, please, do not write the final to please or impress me. Write it to show yourself what you got.

Western created the Pass/No Pass option to invite you to this mindset. That’s why I’ve encouraged students to take it. It acknowledges how extraordinary & difficult the moment we’re in is, and should relieve the pressure you may feel to perform.

If you take the P/NP option, all you have to do to pass the final is show up, and tell me your take on the plays. Don’t stress about it. Be easy on yourself, and when it’s time to do it, just do it.

All that said . . . if you truly feel unable to write the final, e-mail me. Use your own language – not a template, someone else’s eloquence. I’ll take you seriously if you do. I can’t just exempt you from the final (would you respect me, or yourself, if I did?) but I will work with you on alternatives. It would probably mean taking an Incomplete, and finishing the course when you feel able to.

Thanks for reading this far. I wanted to take this request seriously, as a measure of what students are going through right now. Ah, well, we all are.

Please do be well,

The WTF?! moment

This quarter I’m teaching, online, two large-format classes, 60 and 75 students apiece. Most of what I do in a classroom depends on being in a classroom, so the change has been reinvention, as much as translation.

And I’m disheartened, teaching this way. The talents I have, I mostly can’t use, & the talents I need, I mostly don’t have. For instance, it would be great now if I could lecture, but I don’t know how to be the One Voice for long. That’s neurosis not humblebrag. I fill up with self-doubt unless I can see, hear, pick up thru mirror neurons, & pheromones probably, where others in the room are at.

The image above is from Francesco Hayez, Odysseus Overcome by Demodocus’s Song (1813–15). The rhapsode D. was blind & he couldn’t see how his song about Odysseus landed with Odysseus.

I’ve been recording ten-minute “voice notes,” it takes me hours to do one, and they’re dull boring blades. I want the rapid back-and-forth of live thinking, students and me building an ad hoc thought-structure collaboratively, and neither Zoom meetings nor Canvas discussion boards really allow that.

I’m lucky, of course, to have this problem. It means I have a job, a home, my health. If our pandemic has gifts to give, one must be a reminder not to take what you have for granted. A roof and four walls. Good governance. A hug. It’s truly good it’s here when it is. Oh, man, I miss hugs. I haven’t touched or been touched by a person in 6 weeks. Except for a cat or two, I count cats as people.

Well, here’s a thing I’m happy to have done. I took a prompt I use often in class discussion, and converted it for work in our flung remoteness.

The Odyssey and WTF?!

A WTF?! moment happens when, reading a text, you go “what the fuck?!”

You can get through some texts without any WTF?! moments. Others, like the texts we’re reading for this class, are one WTF?! moment after another.

Being a literature student – or a professor of literature for that matter – means leaning into the WTF?! moment. That’s really all there is to it. The rest of literary analysis is some skills you pick up.

However, the WTF?! moment is often uncomfortable: You may feel uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity. You may have a cherished assumption thrown into question. You might be offended or disturbed.

A couple of WTF?! moments I have, reading Inanna, Queen of Heaven [our 1st text]:

  • Often one thing happens, and then another, with seemingly no connection between them: Enki journeys to the Underworld, and then a tree grows by a river.

I feel alienated from the text – it won’t tell me why what happens happens. I also feel curious . . . are there clues, in event A and event B, that suggest how A and B are connected?

  • I can’t tell whether a figure is telling the truth or lying: Inanna says she’s going to the Underworld to attend the funeral rites of Ereshkigal’s husband, and that sounds plausible, but then the thought is dropped – was she lying? telling a half-truth? or does she mean it, and then forget about it?

I feel frustrated by the text – I can’t get into the head of the character I want to identify with. I’m also intrigued . . . should I try to figure out Inanna’s motivation? how to do that? or should I accept that her motivation is opaque?

To read the text as a literature student, I set aside my alienation and frustration, after noticing and acknowledging them, and instead go with my curiosity, my wondering.

Your assignment, as a group: Create a WTF?! database for the Odyssey.

Everyone should contribute at least once. There are two ways to contribute:

1. Identify and describe a WTF?! moment about the text.

2. Lean into a WTF?! moment someone else has identified.

If you do no. 1. A WTF?! moment can be of any scale. If it’s on a small scale – a word choice or a line – be sure to identify book and line number, so others can find it. If it’s on a large scale – something that happens across the book – be sure to give one or more specific examples.

If you do no. 2. “Lean in” doesn’t mean answer so much as think it through. If someone brought up this WTF?! moment in class discussion, what would you add? You could give another example; sharpen the description of the problem; identify other problems connected to it; or, possibly, suggest one or more possible answers.

Everyone should make at least one substantive contribution. More is welcome.

The database should be finished by next Tuesday (May 5) at class time.

E-mail me if you have questions!

It’s a term I’ve come to use for koan-mind.


Galleries for restless legs no. 1

I wanted to make a gallery of places we could go together without leaving home. Turns out, that might take so long, the covid crisis’d be over before I was done.

That’d be okay.

Instead, installments. Here’s one with a few videos that make my world new.

Videos many with animals

Wildlife.jpgCreatures make a log their bridge

Leopard.jpgA leopard mothers a baby baboon

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/vcBn04IyELc/hqdefault.jpg?sqp=-oaymwEZCNACELwBSFXyq4qpAwsIARUAAIhCGAFwAQ==&rs=AOn4CLCrDYG_4yVkPfm0wQQnbvY398VtMgBeethoven’s Fifth, with toy toboggan

Space TimeHow Will the Universe End?
(PBS Space Time)

video conf.jpgA Video Conference Call in Real Life
(Tripp and Tyler)

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 8.32.50 PMPatrick Stewart reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

cats and dominoes.jpgCats and Dominoes

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/958qchBNs60/hqdefault.jpg?sqp=-oaymwEZCNACELwBSFXyq4qpAwsIARUAAIhCGAFwAQ==&rs=AOn4CLBmfnImKOqFcZTrEUbcVRLLKd7JYwAcoustic Heart Sutra
(Kanho Yakushiji)

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/KtiJAexxSPo/hqdefault.jpg?sqp=-oaymwEZCNACELwBSFXyq4qpAwsIARUAAIhCGAFwAQ==&rs=AOn4CLBY3X2aHaxGFctXjLeq1ReeEVCjbgConversations with My 2-Year-Old
“The Cookie”

betty boop.jpgBetty Boop in Snow White, “The St. James Infirmary Blues”
Performed by Cab Calloway. TW: gender and racial stereotypes!

cohl.jpgFantasmagorie (Émile Cohl)
Said to be the first animation ever

jones.jpgJames Earl Jones at the White House
Othello’s testimony to the Venetian Senate