“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.

On co-teaching and letting go

From a recent teaching statement. One thing on Socratic method, rhizome-style, and one on letting your beautiful construct go, when ya gotta.


On democratizing Socrates

The student presentations are really ongoing improvisations in co-teaching. Students meet with each other and with me ahead of time to discuss angles of approach. I pay special attention to the design of their lesson plan – which I say should be fluid, responsive to the facts of the moment in the room – and to orienting them to Socratic method. You should have, I say, with each question you ask, an issue you want to bring to the fore, and a thought of how to get there – but also know that students’ responses might propose many alternative pathways there, or might open a different, equally fruitful line of inquiry.

You will be thinking on your feet. When to stay the course, when to let digress? when to reflect and extend a comment? when to lean into a term or a notion and interrogate it? when to leap to something seemingly unrelated, and how to make, eventually, the bridge? I don’t answer these questions for them ahead of time, of course, I just alert them they’ll be facing them.

Also, I’m modelling Socratic method all quarter long myself, and sometimes reflecting explicitly on it. It’s teaching that keeps me on my own toes, for at any given moment, I need to decide whether to let be, or to step in as a discussant, or to step in as one of the co-teachers, or to step in as teacher of the co-teachers. And all these strata are part of one fabric, a rhizomatic classroom.

The point here is to democratize Socrates – to hand the role of teacher over to every interlocutor. Evidence of success? Start of the quarter, discussions were hesitant, needing much help from me. By the end, they were running themselves, question, point, follow-up question, counterpoint, dialogue, as I listened and took notes.

Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is implicitly political, a surrender of control and dispersal of authority much in the spirit of the rhizome.


On letting the beautiful construct go

The meetings where we work out each rhizome one-on-one are important. Late in fall quarter a student came for a second such conference. She’d changed her idea. She wanted 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 fondness 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.

On Socratic method

Just quick, it’s late, and I’ve a torrent to watch. Witch.

I was made sad beyond all reasonable bound by a student’s complaint. “He has a great sense of humour but he doesn’t teach.” Someone I admired and respected so was open to feeling hurt by.

I guess in a sense she was right. You know that guy Obama? Whom I aspire to be when I grow up? And who got mocked for saying something about leading from behind? I sort of teach like that. Want you to be your own teacher, and poke you till you find it.

Times I want to say, some students, smart and shallow, young and coddled, they aren’t up for being poked. Entitled brats.

Times I want to say, it’s me fucked up, poked when I had no okay to, missed the cues, all my bad. (I’m leaving out all the lovely times it went bitchin’ fine.)

Seems to me, as of this now, it’s neither this nor that.

There’s no telling how the combos, one person and another, or 20, are going to work it out. We like to think our sciences can say, but no.

All there is, is, I do my most honourable best, you do your most honourable best. And if we fail to meet – no harm, no foul, okay?

I like to think, when I’m feeling sympathique to Plato, that that’s a premise to all his dialogues (just as all his dialogues are together a premise to all our universities). If we fail to meet, no harm, no foul, okay?

It happens to the best of stars, too. They fly on.


The bit I’ve put in my syllabus newly, with that student’s, and another’s, negations in mind.

I work by Socratic method. I ask questions meant to sharpen distinctions, shed light on unexamined premises, and enhance a student’s own capacity for inquiry. It’s a messy, improvisational process that sometimes falls flat and makes everyone (me included) feel awkward. Sometimes it looks sort of inefficient. And yet it’s the oldest teaching method we have (older than the university, as an institution, itself) and has survived this long for a reason. It makes the student her own teacher.

If it causes discomfort sometimes that’s why. Or I think so anyway. Being asked to be your own teacher is not easy or comfortable.

They’re growing more tender by the year. What’s the bearing we need to meet them rightly and kindly? I want not to do harm – want also, not to let up.

On playing well w/ others (II)

The other live collaboration is teaching. My vis po group delights me yet with their attention and good cheer. I love spending time with them; they’re a twenty-one-person friend; I’m going to miss her him them when we’re done.

One thing happening, new for me, is what I’ve been calling co-teaching. Instead of breaking up the class period – student presents then I teach – I’ve let the presentations go long and tried to weave my teaching into their teaching. That’s made for challenges. I can’t wholly recede into the role of just-one-more-student. There are lines of inquiry I’m best positioned as teacher to introduce. If I just chill and let the conversation go wherever it wants to then I’m not really doing my job.

How to do my work then? My best work has always been done Socratically. But it’s been hard to work Socratically in this new context. Turns out there may be space for only one Socrates in the room. Is that what Athens meant by the hemlock?


Gist of my last post was, look how strong these friendships are, that they can withstand some sore tension, be hardly shaken. Here my gist is, look how strong this class is, its esprit de corps, that they can let me learn along with them, so exposedly.

No question I feel exposed – they see me fuck up half a dozen times a day – but some mix of apology teasing and good cheer keeps me persistent. The fabric feels not injured by my error.


Half a dozen times a class, I need to make a call, do I step in here, redirect our line of inquiry, and if so, by two degrees, or twenty? (How does anyone teach who’s not OMG a martial artist of the mind? What all factors are in play that moment? My sense of the presenter’s confidence level. Of her command of the material. Of the chances she was headed there anyway. Of the class’s interest and engagement. Of who does and doesn’t have the text. Of X’s irritation at not being called on five minutes ago. Mirror neuron overload. Also I need to pee.)

Let’s say I do, I step in. I want several things at once. I want to model, for the presenter, the Socratic method – how to use questioning to lead your charges down a path of inquiry. (Coupla troubles with that I see now. One’s time frame – I’m wanting to deliver in seconds a lesson that may need weeks months years to offer. Another’s ego – why should my given method be template for another?) I also want the class to taste the fruits of Socratic method in action – if we can get there that way then someone has been actively making connections. And I want maybe also to sustain the arc momentum substance of the class.

I wonder why I’m tired after a two-hour class and ravenous? Surely my brain has burned a burrito’s worth of blood sugar.

In practice, as often as not, stepping in, I knock the presenter off his game. He feels interrupted, disrupted, not I hope corrupted. And I do my Socratic thing, pursue a line of questioning, maybe get to an answer, maybe also model the process in the way I’ve meant to. Then awkwardly hand the presentation back, perhaps with apologies, and we laugh, but it’s awkward.


I often don’t know where I’m headed with a blog post when I start one. That’s what makes these worth writing – what makes them live, long I, the way poems are live. The reason I’ve spent hours on this one (yeah, believe it, hours) is that I’ve slowly come to see, in my own internalized Socratic process, that I’ve been headed for something all along. It’s this.

It’s this. Though it’s been awkward, though students have felt off-put, though I’ve felt sorely mixed about the move I’ve made, these may have been the most important moments in our time together.

I’ll say it again. It may be that exactly in these most awkward moments we’ve done our best learning and our best teaching.

One thing that happens in such a moment – I’m exposed as not in charge and not not in charge. That’s not nothing. Another thing that happens – the presenter’s been challenged without being told she’s doing it right or told she’s doing it wrong. That’s huge. (She’s doing it a perfect that’s other than right or wrong.) Another – everyone in the room has been witness to these aporias, these insoluble knots, and that’s gotta shake your head.

Any of this can only be done, sorry to go all dharma on y’all, this can only be done in a context of perfect and complete, one bright pearl. That is to say, the joy I’m feeling in this company is the joy of sangha, like minds gathered in.

Most focally, sangha means, community of fellow practitioners, meditators, followers of the eight-fold path. Most widely it means all sentient beings, and maybe some mosses too, rocks and stones, broke girders. Somewhere between those two it means hanging out with some folk who get some sides of you as they are.

I fell out of formal Buddhist practice a while ago but seem to keep stumbling into it informally and here I see’s been one way.


Have I gone on long enough? I think so! Wanted last to say though, these have been good teaching days, both classes. My intro to Brit Lit, we hung out with Billy Blakefish today, I don’t know why I call him by that. They seemed to get quite quickly that this prodding

mhh.h.p7.100

is invite to wander out of the lockbox of the senses, enter a life of imagination, of Imagination, the world-making faculty of mind, which for Blake was undifferentiable from God. Before we were done one offered, prompted by nought but irritation & consequent inquiry, that this Proverb of Hell

Where man is not, nature is barren

(which pissed me the hell off, too, when I first read it, and it still can) made sense in that light. Nature is made to be nature by human mind. Not anthropocentrism – phenomenology in embryo.