A Teaching Career (Part I)

Though there was an 18 month gap after graduate school when I worked as a journalist, I have been a teacher from 1979 until four days ago. I resigned my 27 year professorship at Clarkson 18 months earlier than I had intended because of ill-health. It’s hard to generalize about such a long & varied period, but I think I can fairly say that I gave good value for the investments, intellectual & economic, students dedicated to my classes. There were plenty of days starting out that I didn’t know what I was doing, but that never stopped me from being . . . enthusiastic.

I was probably never the best teacher in my department–I never won a teaching award–but I always received among the highest teaching evaluation scores from students. (Maybe I was just “easy,” but I don’t think that’s the reason.) Early in my career, when colleagues made required visits to my classes from time to time, they always wrote me up in glowing terms. (And at Clarkson, where I spent 27 years, those visits were performed by teams of two in order to avoid eccentricity or bias.) I never worked particularly hard to make my students like me, though I think most of them who gave the matter any thought would have said I was personable & friendly. What I cared about was the subject of the day & trying to figure out ways to make undergraduates engage with it. Certainly, I failed more often than I succeeded, statistically; but in any given class on any given day, there must have been one or two who latched onto something I presented. (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett) One or two who took delight in a poem or an idea I introduced.

I started out as a graduate TA my second year in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. This appointment was competitive & coveted & was given to me based, I was told later, on my generally enthusiastic approach to grad school, even in the IWW hothouse. I didn’t wilt because I was oblivious to all the politics going on around me–at least at first. My first big clue was figuring out how important it was to go to all the parties, but even there I mostly just got drunk & shouted about poetry.

I was probably hungover for some of those class sessions & I began my long battle with grading & returning papers on time. I was barely older than many of my students & I remember fending off a couple of women in the spring semester, though this was in the days before strict ethical guidelines regarding such things. I also remember having to lean against the chalk rail & hang on with both hands on the first day I walked into a classroom because my knees were trembling so, though I soon became comfortable in front of the classroom & developed what would become, with variations, my basic mode of instruction for the next forty years: 1. look at a chunk of text, then 2. asking the students questions about the selection while trying to demonstrate ways of reading. I usually had some idea of where I wanted to go & in the early days had some notes of things to work toward.

It didn’t take long for me to give up on notes except when the material was new to me, or particularly complex. I became an adept improviser around themes from the text. This had to turn into something more like ensemble playing in creative writing workshops, though I think I tended to solo too much in that configuration. I almost always felt pregnant befor a class, with a great desire to give birth. The metaphor is perhaps not quite right. I wanted to make the class pregnant with me so that we could all give birth together, each walking out of the room after an hour with our own squalling babe in arms. Ideally, the babe in arms would soon begin asking its own questions of the student–and of me.

After getting my MFA in Iowa I returned to Seattle, where I had been an undergraduate & where most of my friends were. I applied to the PhD program in Lit at the UW and was accepted, though without any financial support, but wound up not pursuing the degree. I worked for a while as a journalist on an alternative paper, then got an offer of an adjunct teaching gig at Western Washington University in Bellingham, which I accepted . . . enthusiastically & prepared to move north. Both before & after this job, I remember being broke all the time & the grinding effect that has on one’s life. I really began dealing with severe bouts of anxiety around this time.

Friends & my own writing pulled me through, usually, because I’d given up my old friend alcohol, even attending AA meetings. At Bellingham, I met two people who had a powerful effect on my life, one of them famous even then, the other obscure, even now. Annie Dillard was very encouraging about my writing & treated me like a colleague even when the regular department faculty (with a few exceptions) treated me like a serf. And the philosopher / writer Stan Hodson (along with his wife Victoria) taught me to juggle–literally & with ideas. We were in a comic play performance group together, but mostly they just invited me & my then girlfriend to hang out at their house & talk. We talked endlessly about literature & philosophy & teaching & since Stan had read everything, this was better than any PhD program could have been. And the food was better. Seems like we were always eating. Still suffering from anxiety attacks, what I remember most vividly from those two years is gales of laughter. I think I began to come into my own as a teacher near the end of this period, but the pay was so awful I began to look around for a better job.

I should say that it was during those two years in Bellingham that I began to consolidate my personality as a poet–this was, indeed, my post-graduate period of synthesis. A happy, nervous time–and also the time I met my partner Carole, who is out there in the kitchen right now, cleaning up after bringing her semi-invalid husband his morning coffee in bed. How far we have come. [To be continued . . . ]


Feldenkrais & Gesellschaft

This piece in the NY Times reports that the latest U.S. Scripps National Spelling Bee co-champions are (again) from South Asia. Jairam Hathwar spelled “feldenkrais” & Nihar Janga spelled “gesellschaft,” arriving at a linguistic stalemate. There is no entry in the online OED for feldenkrais, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a way of training people’s movement to “increase . . . kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness.” Gesellschaft shows up in the OED with this brief entry: “A social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization.”

Since reading this article a couple of hours ago I have been pondering whether it’s possible to draw any coherent implications from the fact that the two winners “are the ninth consecutive victors of South Asian ancestry, and the 12th in 16 years.” One is tempted to make invidious comparisons between the South Asian immigrant community & American nativist English-only fundamentalists. And though that particular social configuration currently packs a certain political wallop, its arguments are so incoherent they ultimately tear themselves apart.

So why this run of victories by South Asian elementary & middle-school students? My best guess would be that Indian immigrant communities (in the US & elsewhere) preserve the very deep Indian understanding of language. Combine that with the aspirational immigrant respect for education & one can begin to see how this run of South Asian spelling bee victories might happen. The claim about Indian cultural understanding of language would need to be further developed & I’m not expert enough to do that in an adequate way. I would simply note that there is a 4000 year textual tradition that begins with the Vedas. For the first half of that period the “texts” were oral, but there was a highly developed form of “oral literacy” among the priestly class that included an elaborate technology of memorization & error checking. Early Buddhists, faced with preserving the discourses of Gotama, adopted & adapted this set of values & skills for their own purposes.

I assume that the boys’ parents are immigrants who grew up bilingual in English & an Indian language & that the boys have grown up speaking American English. I hope they are also speaking the Indian language(s) of their parents–from the boys’ first names probably Hindi. India is an example of bilingualism / multilingualism on steroids. No doubt the boys’ families created an educational / study environment based on these values. The parents themselves would very likely be prepared to draw on their own traditions to help their children prepare. And this would be true of a certain percentage of similar immigrant parents, thus the long string of victories.1

These two particular words raise a question about how children study for the highest level of spelling bee competition. I assume they simply memorize long lists of common & even not so common words, but at some point this method will reach a point of diminishing returns. At that point competitors will need to shift to phonetics, including the phonetics of words of non-English origin. Feldenkrais is a Ukrainian / Yiddish (?) surname; gesellschaft is borrowed from German. I doubt these were on the boys’ To Memorize list.


Show 1 footnote

  1. I make no claim as to whether such training is in some larger way good–either in general or for particular students.

Rereading Frankenstein

I’ve been rereading Frankenstein the last couple of days because I’m going to teach it in my Imagining Science course next term. I’ve taught the book before, but never well, I suspect because I never managed to enter into its imaginative universe until now. The book is a bundle of narrative  implausibilities & the science, as Shelley of course knew, is risible, but it is an imaginative whole, I now see. I think I’m going to present it to my students as a book about education & its risks & disappointments. Viktor’s education leads him to create a monster, who turns out to be an autodidact, for all the good it does him.