A New Direction for an Established Interest

calvin and hobbes

I am pleased to announce my acceptance to the Literacy in Education program at Rutgers University. While I hold a masters in English from NYU, the dominant focus of my studies, research, and employment has been founded on the idea of literacy itself: How do people acquire their skills and improve them? Reading comprehension is the core of writing’s strength. Without the experience of and access to a wide range of texts and writing styles, how can you develop your own voice–fact-based or fictional? It’s like a guitarist with no heroes or a poet with no muse!

I miss learning. I miss being in a community of learners. The inspiration to discover and to share those discoveries has been languishing somewhat. My corporate colleagues are all seekers of knowledge in some form and are involved in discovery and invention, but not all are in the same field of interest. I need to be able to be on the same wavelength with a similar knowledge base. The variety that they bring to our conversations is enjoyable and necessary for my own growth, but I am falling behind in my own field while they are moving forward in theirs. It’s time to flourish again!

The only way to do so is to rejoin academia—for me at least. For others, that is not the only option. It’s not necessary to be acknowledged by a formal body to have proof of learning, knowledge, or intelligence. It is, however, one way to at least prove two out of three (more on that another time) and to receive formal credentials with which to pursue career goals.

So let’s see if this returning student still has the chops to make the idea a reality. It may be that I don’t have the resilience that I once possessed. Or I may be better equipped now for the challenges, personal and intellectual, that loom. Regardless, I’m admitted and committed and it’s up to time and effort to produce the results.

“We must care enough to confront or we don’t care enough!” Tim McClendon, Pastor and Potter

I found the above statement in a blog post as I researched mainstream perspectives on direct and open communication. It all began with my last post and my concern about the limitations many of us put on ourselves and others in our own avoidance of discomfort or healing. This particular blog was on Southern passive-aggressive behavior and the classic “bless your heart” avoidance of frankness.

Much like the NY “borough Italian” upbringing of my youth, there is this idea that direct talk is too aggressive–that indirect statements lead to desired results without drama. But, no, this just creates a nervous “what if I misunderstood the cues?” angst–and no one will admit this because that is being too direct and open! The only difference I see between the Southern and Italian-American* way of communicating is that the latter treats it as an art from while the former just thinks its good manners.

The timing is also an issue. The passive aggressive statements are often an ambush. They are not offered with constructive intent or in a time frame that could contribute to a solution.  They are often belated. Snipes scheduled to cut. The recipient cannot easily respond without seeming reactionary or emotional–thus, deserving of the cut.

I find that my blood pressure goes up exponentially and my manners go out the window in the face of passive aggressive behavior. It’s disrespectful in my eyes and I, unfortunately, lose respect for the person. I’ve been told that I am extremely aggressive and hard to approach when someone has a complaint. That comes from people who are not direct talkers. It is from people who hold onto real or imagined slights and wait until I have complaint to bring theirs forward. Why hold on to something? What if I keep doing that over and over because I don’t realize I’m doing it or that it is upsetting? Direct people never stop being direct with me and I tend to understand how to act with them and what their needs are.

McClendon mentions a time that his father just stewed as a woman took liberties photographing pottery in the museum he was running. Instead of putting a stop to it, he let her run rampant then said something to the effect of having her stay for dinner while she’s at it. She accepted–not realizing he was being passive aggressive/sarcastic. Or maybe, being rude to begin with, she had no compunction about saving money by eating with them. He then proceeded, behind her back, after she left, to fume about her.

But, as McClendon pointed out to his father, he invited her! He allowed her to run roughshod over him initially and then accept insincere hospitality. In fact, direct confrontation might have created a different outcome. Perhaps, having just been overly enthusiastic, she would have been embarrassed and polite once she had been confronted–politely. Instead, the only good thing I can find in this is that the passive aggressive behavior backfired and the father did not get any satisfaction from it. The possible middle outcome: She was still a rude person but he stood his ground and cut short her infraction.

Confrontation is not bad in and of itself. It’s making sure that everyone is on the same page. We don’t always know we are being inappropriate or upsetting. We do, however, dislike being told belatedly about trespasses or things that might not have been if direct communication came into play. Passive aggressive saves up ammunition. Respectful confrontation stops problems and prevents patterns.

*I use the term Italian-American because I can’t speak for Italians everywhere in terms of communication. I can say that the kind of “indirect speak” that people witness in The Godfather and The Sopranos (complete with knowing look and pause) is what I grew up with—although with much less dire consequences when misunderstood!

If you’d like to read more from McClendon’s blog: https://wtmcclendon.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/southern-passive-aggressive-behavior/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-5

What Are College Students Used to Reading?

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As I read through another essay in Deep Reading, I was struck by the author’s commentary on her early years of learning. Meredith Ross (“The Unschooled Writer”), struggled with the “flat” or simplistic wording of tests: “I had grown up in a world of context and complexity, and the trivia questions and the flat answers in boxes just weren’t cutting it.” Granted this was referring to a test she took to be able to participate in a television show about “child geniuses,” still, these questions were not much different from many standardized tests. I should know, I used to write items for such tests! We had to avoid religion, emotion, controversial subjects, birthdays, anything too representative of wealth (an inner-city child might be offended if we used the word “yacht” instead of boat), etc. Basically, anything interesting or well-rounded in nature. Apparently students should not be distracted by variety or anything requiring imagination.

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What I am getting at here is her emphasis on “content and complexity.” It seems that fewer and fewer students enter college with an expectation of anything more than flat, generic questions based on hyper-edited-for-easy-content passages and photo-dense pages—this goes for course reading and textbooks–not just tests. They seem to be more shocked by challenge than bored by blandness.

She bucked at the idea of having to be right the first time: “Almost every mistake I made as a child, small or large, was . . . understandable [and] easily correctable . . . rather than an insurmountable failure or something that needed to be addressed seriously.” Trial and error were part of her process. Especially her writing process. So why do so many freshmen sit silently and afraid to risk mistakes these days? I used to have students who would at least try to guess. Even light sarcasm is better than silence in most instances. But silence is more and more common.

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Perhaps inserting a sense of humor into the mix might help: “I don’t know if there’s a better lesson for a writer to learn: do your best, and if it comes out wrong, just laugh and know better next time.” I do try but it seems that they aren’t sure they should laugh either!

Overall, I’d like to see more students these days react like Ross and abhor the tedium, expect the complex and the engaging, and take the risk.

Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

calvin and hobbes

I’ve been addressing, here, students’ preparedness for their first-year composition course. No longer taking for granted that they have been reading regularly for school or personal interest and that they at least have some experience in questioning–analyzing–their materials, I have actively asked them to question their relationship with the course essays and assignments. Ordinarily, I would get right to work on assigning their writing projects and the planning and brainstorming for their essays, but this cannot be the starting point anymore. I need to find out what they truly understand or find of interest in the text before they can even begin to formulate their own work.

For the most part, very few are aware that they have prior personal experience or knowledge that they could apply to understanding their materials. They see each essay as a separate entity that stands alone from all other assignments in other classes. They often don’t relate the subject matter to experiences and choices from their everyday lives. It’s hard to fathom for me because I’ve always been asked to relate the now to the past and to future possibilities. I assume everyone has done the same.

That does not make for effective teaching. This is not to say that I am leaning in the direction of trigger warnings and the like. I still feel that adults must be able to face multiple and possibly uncomfortable subjects without filters. It’s up to them to decide what they can handle–not up to me to shield them. But, positive or negative, they still need to be clearly engaged.

Very few have been interested in reading with true depth rather than reviewing for class time. Some come to me having struggled with understanding the writers’ overall viewpoint and even the vocabulary level. Personal essays are simply narratives without perspective to some. Overt argument is distilled into basic summary. Class time has become about how to read in general rather than how to write at this level. But, if that is what I have in hand, that is what I work with. And, coming to this with empathy makes me more effective and creates a particular safety zone that I am ok with providing. Some call it remedial work, some call it developmental, some call it refresh and review. Regardless, I call is a necessity for students from community college to private universities these days. I can’t reform K-12 education but I can accept what that produces  and do my best with what I inherit.

Literature and the Writing Process

orwellAs I continue to look through the essays in Deep Reading, it has become more apparent that the choice of using fiction or nonfiction for the classroom is a topic that many professors remain obsessed over and still debate on a regular basis. I’ve often argued this topic with colleagues and find that many composition professors are absolutely against bringing any form of fiction into their classroom. They feel that students need to be exposed to particular formats that they can follow and apply for themselves for their assignments. How could a work of fiction assist them in their own expository writing?

Yes, they should read works of nonfiction for examples of the modes of writing (e.g., argument, definition, process analysis), organization, research, citations/references, etc. But what about students’ interests? What about being engaged creatively? Not that nonfiction is boring, but sitting with an anthology of (sometimes outdated) essays by writers who may be unfamiliar to them is not a promising recipe for enthusiastic class discussion or original essay theses.

There is much to find in many novels that will engage a student and encourage complex analysis of important topics. One of the scholars whose work was most interesting to me is Sheridan Blau of Teachers College. He makes a succinct and logical argument in favor of (some) fiction as a catalyst for writing: “[M]ost serious novels . . . are interlaced throughout with passages that are themselves not narrative, but that are important to the experience of the novel as a structure of meaning and drawn from the discourses of philosophy, theology, ethics, and the various social and natural sciences.” In other words, students can get more than entertainment when they read fiction—if they are guided properly. Why not focus more on the overall topics students would like to investigate and argue rather than obsessing over the genre from which these topics are derived?

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Without Darkness, How Can We Appreciate the Light?

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A friend recently found out about a family member’s 10-year obsession with her. They had been compulsively collecting and cataloging her failures and perceived cruelties and mistakes. Their intractable and absolute conclusions as to her intentions and actions over this time, and perhaps even earlier, currently exist as highlighted, underlined, and (probably alphabetized) chronological “proof” of her awfulness. A solution or reconciliation did not seem to be the purpose here and my friend began to think this archive was apparently “evidence” for a retaliation of an undisclosed nature. Regardless of how many times my friend tried to address the root of the problem, the relative would not participate in a solution. It seems that to ask for clarification of, or response to, these logged behaviors would make the accuser have to acknowledge their own failures (the root cause of the dilemma is not necessary to the point here, so the personal details will be omitted).

In this mind-numbing set of circumstances, my friend found herself stilled and bereft of creativity and confidence. She had become very self conscious and nervous after this revelation. If this person were so obsessed with her weaknesses, real or perceived, how would she fare under the scrutiny of others who are not obligated by blood or kinship to be kind or compassionate? After all, even informed and logical life choices she had made had been twisted out of context. How could she guide reality? This worry affected her writing. Her opinions were tepid. Ambition, rather moderate. It took some time before she would even practice yoga in our group! Her sadness would not dissipate; but, she did brave asking me what she should think of all of this. Was she really what this person claimed?

The only thing I could say with certainty is that the need to believe in and, thus, prove the worst is simply just that–a need–rather than a reality or truth. Like other forms of interpretation, what may look to be absolute may have more meaning if one educates oneself beyond the surface “evidence.” If one refuses to question or confront something, any reality can become terrible and impossible to participate in or change. This participation in reality takes strength and courage, not the hoarding of pain and blame. The family member was without the ability to understand or care about this.

After this discussion, she disappeared into herself for a while. Then, after about two months, she reached out. She told me that, after a time, all the obsession about the betrayal began to feed a different energy. She became more analytical about the whole thing. Rather objective. She couldn’t really explain her internal process, but she could offer some solace or help to those in similar situations or difficult circumstances by sharing her experience as a kind of allegory for questioning the self. With calm meditation and reflection, it became evident that her antagonist was quite the narcissist, less focused on revenge than self validation in relation to my friend’s abilities, and accomplishments. The antagonist did not want to acknowledge their own faults. Their lacking was easier to ignore or deny if someone else was to blame for their own life choices or their inability to make wise ones. The accuser stopped being a nemesis holding a “loaded “pile of paperwork “aimed” at her and threatening her very permission to exist as a faulted individual. Her identity could no longer be reworked and scripted through a curated installment of electronic and print missives. For my friend, there was a kind of “dark night of the soul” before her inner light and common sense could regain their rightful place in her consciousness. But that light did illuminate reality and offer the comfort she needed.

My friend’s succumbing to fear and insecurity had been part of the person’s goal; but, she found that hiding and cringing took  more energy than finding relief.  The obsession should remain with the obsessed and not participated in or subscribed to. Through engagement with discomfort and fear came reassurance and affirmation.

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The key here is that her “soul” or inner spirit endured and expelled the darkness. She maintained a sense of self that even a long and highlighted list of ill-informed accusations or misinterpreted scenarios could not eradicate.

We cannot control the results of, or reactions to, our actions, intended or unintended. There really is no outside environment that is worthy of arresting our right to create, grow, learn, and teach. What we can do is move forward and learn to identify what is true and renounce what is false. Then we should, if possible, not walk away but use the experiences to inform our next, productive moves.

What “dark night” can you turn into fodder for creative growth?