A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Missing the Point of the Flux Capacitor

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

In 1982, 406 of 415 voters selected Hank Aaron to be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That made Aaron a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the career home run leader at the time (he hit 755 home runs), one wonders how or why nine voters did not select him. Truly, you can’t please everyone.  Which is exactly what I thought when reading Sheila Benson’s 1985 review of Back to the Future for the Los Angeles Times (‘An Underpowered Trip Back to the Future’). The film’s score at Rotten Tomatoes is just under Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame voting percentage (96% compared to 97.8%), but Benson thinks it is “big, cartoonish and empty,” showing she missed the point entirely.

For Benson, the film’s premise is good but the execution lacks nuance. She chastises Michael J. Fox’s performance as “dangerously low on subtlety,” thinks Marty McFly’s mother having the hots for Marty has “a faintly rancid taste,” and complains that “an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.”  Most importantly, Benson believes that when it comes to the plot and Marty McFly’s attempts to return to 1985, “there is, unfortunately, never a second’s doubt that he’ll manage any of these feats.” Essentially, then, Benson is upset over what she deems the unreality of the fun.

By focusing on the reality of the film, though, Ms. Benson completely misses its goals, holding it to standards it never sets for itself. In watching Back to the Future dozens of times (no hyperbole used), I have never once wondered whether Marty McFly would accomplish any of his tasks. Instead, I have always delighted in how he accomplishes them. I have never stopped to wonder whether it is possible to drive a car at 88 mph and hit a wire at the precise moment a bolt of lightning charges it, or whether a man can dangle off a clock face and catch a heavy cable by his wool trousers, or how a 50 year old man can still be 50 years old 30 years later. Instead, I have gloried in watching Doc Brown prevent Marty from being erased from existence. Similarly, I have never been foolish enough to view the film’s 1955 setting as historical artifact. McFly journeys not to the real 1955 America but to an idealized stereotype of it—where every building houses a successful business, where kids play in the town square, and where black Americans are on the verge of breaking free from their historic mistreatment. It’s intentional nonsense, which is why its not being the real 1955 never bothers 96% of viewers, and why Marty McFly’s not being subtle is not the point (Did she notice Doc Brown? The director was clearly not chasing subtlety). The point is that Marty is witty and spunky and fun. And that Doc is brilliant and loyal and significantly off-kilter. And that they’re both easy to root for. Amidst all that, we don’t imagine Marty will be stuck forever, we just wonder how he’ll work his way out.

In this 1985 review, Shelia Benson admits that for her the film contained early promise, and she hoped it might be “another ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’” This, unfortunately for Benson, reveals precisely how off her calculations were. Though I grew up in the 1980s, I had to google Buckaroo Bonzai to know what it was (a sci-fi film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, released in 1984). But Back to the Future? Oh, I think we all know what that is, just like all baseball fans know who Hank Aaron is: one of the all-time greats.

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Trump’s Tyranny of the Mind

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

It is easy to find anti-Trump messages these days, particularly if one is roaming through late night TV comedy. But such left-leaning comedians’ objections to Trump are not surprising—how many of them would admit to supporting anything President George W. Bush did, for example? More surprising—and, to my mind, more significant—is the continued vehement objection to President Donald Trump from more conservative sources, like Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush. In a recent column for the Washington Post (“How Trump Broke Conservatism”), Gerson characterizes President Trump’s manner of arguing as an assault on truth. According to Gerson, Trump’s strategy is to “First, assert and maintain a favorable lie. Second, attack and discredit sources of opposition. Third, declare victory based on power or applause.” In other words, Gerson is saying, Trump chooses not to persuade based on argumentation or truth but on assertion and power. Gerson fills a paragraph with classic examples, including President Trump’s claim during the presidential campaign that President Barak Obama had wiretapped his campaign headquarters and his claim that President Obama is Kenyan.

Gerson’s theory about Trump’s argumentation is extremely useful because it illustrates how the President is not engaging in debates and logic as they are traditionally thought of, but instead using the logic of power. It is a logic we’re familiar with but also one which most people know to be problematic and morally suspect. It reminds me of an old ESPN advertisement for NBA games, where the ESPN announcers are traveling the country in an RV with NBA players. In one clip, two announcers are taking on Shaquille O’Neil at Scrabble. Shaq finishes a move and earns 29 points for “Shaqtastic.” The camera shows us the board, which is full of words built out of Shaq’s name (“Shaqattack,” “Shaqesque”). “How did you get so many Q’s?” Stuart Scott asks, to which Shaq replies with the brusque authority of a 300 pound, seven foot man: “Don’t worry about it.” There is a pause, and then he smiles to say, “My turn again!”

The audience laughs because Shaq’s power, which they had watched him use to move other 7 foot men around a basketball court like they were kindergartners, was completely inappropriate at the Scrabble board. Yet if the situation were real, what could two puny TV announcers have done to prevent it? After all, Gerson reminds us, “The alternative to reasoned discourse is the will to power,” and Shaq’s on-camera (and on-court) persona embodies the will to power.

Gerson’s commentary is light on ideas for how to prevent this “tyranny of the mind,” but his words are themselves a beginning. In the make believe world of that ESPN RV, to call Shaq a bully and a cheat would have brought consequences in the RV—possibly painful ones–but it also would have ended the parody of a Scrabble game. Michael Gerson’s columns have surely lost him prestige in the current Republican party, but he’s decided the consequences are worth exposing the parody.

Is the ideal product of 21st Century learning a robot?

Our great universities, with their vast resources, their exhaustive libraries, look like a humanist’s dream. Certainly, with the collecting and archiving that has taken place in them over centuries, they could tell us much that we need to know. But there is pressure on them now to change fundamentally, to equip our young to be what the Fabians used to call “brain workers.” They are to be skilled laborers in the new economy, intellectually nimble enough to meet its needs, which we know will change constantly and unpredictably. I may simply have described the robots that will be better suited to this kind of existence, and with whom our optimized workers will no doubt be forced to compete, poor complex and distractible creatures that they will be still.

That is from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “What Are We Doing Here?” and her observation that the optimum results of our current approach to education are to create computers less capable than the robots we’re building should chill teachers who have grown used to hearing advocacy for “21st Century Learning.” Do people really advocate for what Robinson suggests they do? Here’s a typical jargon-filled example, from Karen Cator, former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education:

Success in the 21st century requires knowing how to learn. Students today will likely have several careers in their lifetime. They must develop strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills in order to be successful in an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.

It’s that last line that most clearly grasp’s Robinson’s point: “learners for life” means “intellectually nimble.”

The Niche Future of Handwriting

My handwriting has never lived up to the Romantic achievements of my parents. My mother’s unique script, a print-and-cursive hybrid, is round and smooth, filling the space between lines as if it were all canvas for her use. My father’s is notable for the way the extension of the capital G on my first name made a small end table. My own handwriting has always served me well, as it is legible, but neither has it left me feeling distinguished, or mature: it is a pragmatic riff on standard elementary print. I round the e’s a bit more than Mrs. Spaulding said we should and I’m inconsistent with the size of my letters, but if I’m attempting to be neat, it’s basically what she taught me.

To confirm my suspicions, I learned from Anne Trubek’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting that Edgar Allan Poe would have loved my parents and thought me a bore. “Poe,” writes Trubek, “felt those who wrote as they had been instructed were less original than those whose handwriting departed from what they were taught in school.”

Trubeck would chastise me for my self-consciousness, defending me for the same reasons and in the same way she defends her son, whose penmanship drew the ire of his elementary teachers. Her central thrust is that attitudes like Poe’s are sentimental associations, that examining handwriting is not a window into a soul.

But my problem is I like my sentimental associations.

I’m not alone. We might think of Poe as an eccentric and slightly irrelevant ancestor, but some of our ideas about handwriting are closely related to his. Take Dyana Herron’s thoughts about the beauty of a handwritten letter as an example:

There’s something great about receiving a letter, even just the tactile materials, the ink or graphite on paper, and the author’s handwriting, not just their words in Times New Roman or Arial. There’s something powerful, too, about reading words that were created by hand just for you, not for anyone else, and sent off to be read by your eyes only. It’s like receiving a gift, an act of love.

Herron captures how our love for this kind of letter is difficult to express: “there’s something great” and “wonderful,” but we can’t say precisely what. Yet we do interpret it as love, and we see the handwriting as more intimately part of the author than “just their words” are.

David Foster Wallace taps into the same notion in a drafted preface for The Pale King: “Author here. Meaning the actual author, the real human holding the pencil, not any sort of abstract narrative persona.” Since Wallace wrote his manuscripts by hand the comment may have been a simple description of the scene, but even then, “holding the pencil” builds a firmer image of a real person than “the real human tapping the keys.” A person with a pencil makes the words more intimate, more personal, more real.

Ideas like these are why I advise my students to handwrite thank you notes, yet this ultimately is perception, a sense of a cultural symbol, and despite its associations, Trubek asserts that “medieval scribes proved that handwriting does not, in and of itself, reveal personality or the self.”

She further demonstrates this by revealing our shifting sentiments. Take, for example, the theory of cursive evangelist Austin Palmer, who claimed “penmanship training ranks among the most valuable aids in reforming ‘bad’ children” and that penmanship “is the initial step in the reform of many a delinquent.” Would anyone declare that today? Nor would anyone declare that typewritten correspondence, as opposed to handwritten, is insulting or unprofessional; but that is what people believed at the turn of the 20th Century. If our opinions about handwriting as a revelation of our intimate selves didn’t surface until the turn of the 19th Century, as Trubek asserts, can we really stand by them?

Trubek’s thesis is that we live in an era of transition from one technology to another, that handwriting’s dominance is finished and that, with time, the sentimental attachments people like me assign to it will dwindle and become like Socrates’s argument against writing: an intriguing artifact.

Yet even as I recognize the merits of Trubek’s case against handwriting as an expression of psychology, I find myself questioning her confidence in handwriting’s demise. Her focus is the longform world of handwriting–the letter, the business correspondence, the novel. These forms have migrated to digital media, but does that mean that handwriting is an obsolete technology?

I’m slow to admit it, which isn’t surprising, since in my left pocket I carry a 3.25”x4.5” notebook, and in my right, a pen. Neither are fancy, and I don’t protect them from damage, but they’re useful to me, because if I have an idea, if I hear something interesting, if I think of something I need to do, I can jot it down. My students, in contrast, typically write such things in the notes app on their phone, or they take a picture of it. I’ve written a single due date on the board in a classroom and had students snap a photo rather than write the date in a calendar app or a planner. Judging by the excuse parade every due date, it’s a no better than the old technology; but it’s the dominant way, so should I adopt their method? Should I abandon pen and paper in favor of digital devices?

I don’t think so, partly because when it comes to the tech my students prefer (and to be realistic I should include my peers and elders), I personally doubt my ability to overcome the beautiful temptations of Silicon Valley. What engineer Tristan Harris told The Atlantic’s Bianca Bosker rings in my ear as warning bell:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, . . . “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

I don’t need a smartphone, and I primarily see downsides in what my life would look like with one: I’d jot a note about what I need to accomplish later (“Sarah’s recommendation letter!”) but would check Twitter just because; I would see that red circle with a “2” on my Gmail icon, so I wouldn’t be able to black the screen until I knew what was in there. Whatever I had been thinking before I had pulled that phone out would be gone.

So when I began to consider ideas for this essay, I opened a composition book and wrote my ideas with a pen. I thought without notifications. I kept thinking even when I got stuck, since I couldn’t run to Twitter or Feedly while I waited for inspiration.

And I’m not alone in my choice. Alan Jacobs, who has thought about these technologies much more than I have, has moved even much of his longform writing to pen and paper for reasons of efficiency and clarity: “When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand.” Jacobs is describing not a sentimental image of himself but a focus, a freedom from the structure of screens and the web, a reason related to my own avoidance of a smartphone. Both of us are seeing what Nicholas Carr describes in The Glass Cage, that aspects of these technologies do not “extend our productive capabilities without circumscribing our scope of action and perception.” The trade-offs of the digital technology in these areas are too high.

One trait a handwritten technology has going for it, then, is its lack of distraction. Yet I also find my notebook lends me flexibility of form. As I attempt to shape an idea, before I can articulate it, I find myself able to think more widely, more flexibly, with a pen and paper. I do not have to list ideas in a word processor’s bland outlines but can use indents and margins in whatever ways seem appropriate. I can sketch arrows, stars, and circles without clicking on icons. I recognize there is likely some software to enable me to do such things, but is it standard? Would it be on my phone? When I begin to write the article on a computer, would I be able to spread my plan beside me like I’ve done with my notebook as I type this?

Then, of course, there is every professor’s favorite research, the studies suggesting students who take notes by hand instead of by typing actually retain material longer and understand concepts more thoroughly. This is what Rusty Hawkins, a history professor at the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan, explains to his students each semester when he bans laptops from his classes. “The funny thing is,” Hawkins says, “no one ever complains about the ban. Ever.”

Hawkins notes that irony of his students’ acceptance of pen and paper arises from the assumption of digital’s dominance: “We’ve been bombarded with all this info about the coming digital natives, but my students hate reading things digitally. They all prefer having hard copies of articles or books in front of them.”

I’ve noticed similar ironies in my own high school classes. Each year I tell my AP language and composition students they have to use one of my methods for their research paper’s notes. I then offer the traditional index-card method, Zotero, and a format I’ve created that uses a word processor. This year more than half my students opted for the index cards, despite my introducing the method with a story of why I quit using them myself.

Which all means that despite Trubek’s pronouncement of its demise, handwriting still functions as a uniquely pragmatic technology. We can take freeform notes with it, we can access it quickly (no need to load an app, just open the notebook and click the pen), and if we use a sensible system (like a bullet journal or commonplace book), we can retrieve and review materials easily and with minimal distraction.

I’ll admit I’m still cradling under my vest a romantic attachment to handwriting. I wrote a letter to my aunt recently and used a pen and small stationary, to make it more personal and loving.

But I’ll also admit Anne Trubek has exposed my sentimental notions for what they are and that my wider behavior confirms her central claim. I have not written a rough draft of an essay in 15 years. I started a few but each time grew impatient with my fingers, opting to finish the work on a word processor. Even in the classroom, I rarely use a pen to mark students’ papers for more than a brief moment, choosing instead to type my comments into a Word document, which I attach to their paper as a kind of rubric. For me, where speed and revision are priorities, digital technology wins.

Still . . . I remember my dad’s cool G’s primarily because every morning he’d write my initials in three capital letters on my brown paper lunch bag. No app can replace that. So while handwriting has lost its writing monopoly, it still serves a number of pragmatic purposes, ones I am convinced will remain relevant longer than many have assumed.

Writing without Self-Absorption

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.

Jonathan Rogers

Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.

Writing thoughts from George Saunders & Margaret Atwood

One thing I found was—maybe it’s more about my approach to storytelling. It’s so simple. You’re in a scene, and you kind of have a vague idea of what the scene is supposed to do, but you’re mostly having fun within that scene. You’re trying to make the lines work, trying to have a nice pace, trying to get some jokes in.

You’re working closely within the text on its own merits. Almost like cooking to taste. At some point it will spit out a plot point.

So, say a bunch of people are sitting around a table talking, and one of them is really grouchy because it’s funny. And you go, “I wonder why he’s so grouchy?” At some point he says he hasn’t eaten in a day. And you go, “Ah!” So the next talking point is: Get that guy some food.

It’s nothing really theoretical, it’s coming out of the natural energy of the piece. And then, having done that, you might want to look upstream to the proceeding section. Why hasn’t that guy eaten in two days?

All storytelling is kind of that—there’s a bit of text that you put pressure on that spits out some desire that a character has and then you follow that. The other part is that every scene raises an expectation in the reader’s mind—that’s part of its job is to make you look in and be curious.

The next thing kind of satisfies that, it’s entertaining, but it does that whole process over again. You can see a whole book as a series of creating an expectation and then delivering a skew on that expectation so it’s not totally satisfied.

–          George Saunders

Not all of my ideas have been amazing. Some have not, NOT worked out! As they say (I think it was Beckett): try, fail. Try again, fail better. Or something like that. We have all had projects that have ended up as smashed eggs on the floor.

–          Margaret Atwood