Stories always matter

Back in Fall of 1997 I taught my first college classes. I had just come back to NYC after seven years in California because I got into the English Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center. My whole reason for going to graduate school was the idea of a professor which had far more to do, in my mind, with teaching than scholarship. In short, I really had no idea what I wanted to study, and I was a terrible writer and a mediocre thinker at best. Nonetheless, I wanted to be in a classroom, and I wanted to engage and inspire students by discussing great literature. I was idealistic; I was an adjunct, and I was all fired up. My first semester I was given two sections of English 151 at the College of Staten Island (which was basically an introduction to writing and literature course) and I went at it guns-a-blazing. We read poetry by Langston Hughes, stories by Franz Kafka, a novella by Kate Chopin speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., and a novel by William Faulkner to list jsut part of the syllabus. I was laying it all on, and I wanted to dig into the themes of power, gender, race, alienation, and all the other ideas that often undergird great writing as a means to bring the most complex social and emotional realities to light without pedantic judgement.

I spent the first five or six weeks on a high I wouldn’t know again until my son Miles was born more than seven years later. But unlike when Miles was born, I came off this five or six week cloud with a catastrophic crash I was way too excited to have seen coming—week seven of my first semester of teaching there was an out and out fist fight amongst several students that broke down along racial lines. The topics we were discussing became too charged, my abilities to manage them too limited and facile, and the energy and expectations I had tried to instill too unstable. I remember walking away from that class with a hole in my stomach as big as a football that the scent of Fresh Kills rushed right through. I started thinking that rather than providing a safe space for open thought and dialogue, the class had devolved into a violent battlefield reproducing many of the worst elements of the society I was hoping to critique and/or transcend. After that event it was a lost semester, I limped through the remaining eight weeks, the students didn’t really trust me any more and I didn’t really trust them. Something happened, something broke—they knew me for the novice I was and that simple fact hobbled me. The community of the class I had tried to build, however short-lived, was gone.

I tried to talk to other faculty about the incident but I didn’t realize at the time just how much a pariah the status of adjunct was in colleges and universities. I swallowed it eventually, went on and the very next semester was one of my best ever. I was given an Early American Literature Survey course to teach—a field I was learning about as I was teaching—and it was an utter blast. Everything went right, the class was locked-in, and we were all having fun and learning stuff. It was what I went to graduate school for, and while CUNY wrings it’s graduate students like used rags full of adjunct teaching gigs, I think that class might have been the highlight of my graduate career. A moment before I was forced to recognize the bullshit politics, often meaningless intellectual grandstanding, and various student factions vying for a rarefied facultys’ attentions—and the even sadder fact is that CUNY’s Grad Center probably had cooler people and less bullshit than most graduate programs of its kind. Nonetheless, that charade quickly embittered my grad school existence. Teaching was always a place I could return to—and I was getting more and more comfortable with it—but the hounds of research and scholarship paired with the dance of advisors and committee members made me feel as awkward and emotionally uncomfortable as I did in middle school. But I digress….

The real point I am trying to make is that almost 15 years after I started teaching college classes in some fashion or another, and despite how much I still love teaching and get a pure rush off the energy of good class—I still remain dangerously susceptible to my own “pedagogy of uncertainty” (to steal a term from Ray Land). I have preached and practiced openness to varying degrees over the last six of seven years in every class I’ve taught—there have been eleven in all. And at this point in my teaching and learning career I can’t imagine there is any going back to the idea of the “sacred” or “protected” space of the classroom, I’ve gotten way too much out of sharing openly and remain hopeful that the network effects of an open educational experience illustrate that the web represents the most powerful, contemporaneous cultural medium for our ongoing quest for a better civilization. It is the technical, conceptual, social, and cultural threshold of our moment that the majority of humanity will cross through, struggle with, try and make sense of, and indelibly change as a result of. This I believe.

So, when I run a class like I did tonight (and have been doing for most of ds106 over the last year) completely in the open and come across something students created that truly jars me and makes the entire class feel uncomfortable I realize I am always a novice at this teaching thing. And while different than my experience 15 years earlier, it resonates for me because I feel that same hole in my stomach. Was I not clear enough? Was I trying too hard? Am I being to flippant? At the same time this is what I should be there to do, to encounter and challenge a creative act done in poor judgement with a mind towards shock value and perhaps an uncomfortable laugh rather than to deeply offend—which it did—but I didn’t do that right away. I was left somewhat disarmed and flailing. I’m not sure we always understand just how powerful the things we create can work on others, we are so innured to seeing TV, Hollywood, and the culture industry more generally push the idea of creativity through the lens of death, destruction, or cheap shock and we often re-package our own stories through this template—which I am all too guilty of and it’s pretty depressing if I think about it enough.

Almost all the sound effects stories played back tonight were rather unabashed exercises in death and destruction (save one that was just generic), not particularly compelling other than as a testament to just how much the dominant narratives of the day are generated more from the glands than the heart, to paraphrase William Faulkner. I also understand that these were elementary, rushed exercises used to create a simple story with sound effects, and there is always an element of tongue and cheek when playing in ds106. But I guess what became more apparent than ever for me tonight was that stories always matter, they matter deeply. I realized again, as I did fifteen years ago, just how powerfully they can work on the psyche, which is an important reminder not to be so flippant or careless with idea or an assignment you will be sharing with a class. How might your ideas effect others? Thinking hard about that one question might be enough, and it might be something many us are not accustomed to reflecting on, but should be. I want to preserve the impetus of humanity and dignity in story that binds us all together and makes us more than strangers.

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4 Responses to Stories always matter

  1. dkernohan says:

    Great post Jim, there’s a hell of a lot to think about here. There is something about discomfort and creativity and learning – I think learning is uncomfortable, one of the things I know a lot of people struggle with is being presented with ideas, concepts or tropes that they feel personally (or professionally) uncomfortable with.

    I didn’t hear the class last night, I was at a conference with limited internet, but I guess the risk of “make art dammit” is that creativity can bring up all kinds of stuff. Teaching like you do I guess you’d need to be an unholy mix of technician/counsellor/theoretician/motivational speaker/artist/… – it’s a big job!

  2. Martha says:

    As I said in the office today, I think what matters in these situations is as much about how you respond to it as it is about the actual event. It’s an opportunity to have an open, frank conversation with students about what the line is between having fun and going too far. Those aren’t easy conversations, but I think there’s an opportunity to come out on the other end with a stronger sense of our shared goals and mission.

    The other thing I was thinking about just now is how many faculty would find this kind of incident chilling — it would, in some cases, convince them to back off on openness and sharing. However, it seems to me that to turn away from these situations (or to avoid any educational contexts in which they might happen) is an abdication of responsibility.

    A few of your students made a really poor choice, and they did it in the open. However, it is not the course that *made* them do this nor is it the openness. No one can really say why they did it, except them.

    In a few years, they’ll have graduated from UMW and, I’m pretty much positive, they will be living lots of their lives on the open web. If they make really poor choices then, when there is no one to call them on it and ensure that they participate in a conversation about those choices, the blowback could be WAY worse.

    I think it’s important for us as educators to be brave in the face of these situations and to offer open, shared experiences for our students BECAUSE we can have their back right now.

    I have no doubt that’s the kind of teacher you are.

  3. Alan Levine says:

    I’m with Martha The Wise, the wrong thing to do would be to just move on. There is absolutely a hard lesson to learn here, and the mattering that stories do is that they get inside us, and trigger our neurons. And we get caught up in the cultish joy of the fun ones, but here it is- they have the capacity to do the opposite.

    It was apparent when you relayed this class how much this matters to you, and that cannot help but reflect back to your students. They should come back to this with as much heart as you put into it. I would be hopeful they might read this, and not issue some trite apology, but go back to their creative place, and keep in mind the potential impact of a story. The audience matters too.

    I am frankly surprised the line does not get crossed more often. But let’s not go about just creating “carefully”. #4life can take on a different hue when we couple it with the “matters”

    Believe in what you believe, cause I sure do.

  4. Larry Hanley says:

    Jim – – This is a straight-no-chaser post, and I appreciate your honesty (as well as identifying with your grad-school-redemptive-teaching story). Too often “risk” is celebrated in facile ways – – as a virtue for the denizens of our new, improved era. And “risk” can make teaching an extreme sport. Are there pedagogical endorphins? Sometimes I get so caught up in breaking the vessels that I forget what it’s like to eat sand and suds after getting thrown from an easy-breaking swell.

    When you ride that edge – – pushing the pedagogical machine over the moguls and parkouring across the bland neo-modernist architecture of higher learning – – it’s easy to forget those moments when (to quote one of the great poets of unknown pleasures): “All my failings exposed./And there’s a taste in my mouth,/As desperation takes hold./Just that something so good/Just can’t function no more.”

    It’s good to be upbraided by the unexpected, sometimes. And, as the your fellow-traveling sages note above: teach it, don’t preach it! Disaster can build stronger, better communities. . .

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