It’s Hard to Run in High Altitudes and Other Reflections on Writing with Mindfulness

I’m writing this post above the clouds, on route home to NYC after three days in Estes Park, Colorado for the AEPL conference, “Inviting the Edge: Mindfulness in the Writing Classroom and Beyond.”  Here I respond to the question any academic conference begs: “What did you get out of it?”  I have three answers: 1) I found out that running in high altitudes made this long-time runner slow and barely able to breath 2) Being “mindful” requires grounded attention, work that is grueling, rigorous, and practical and 3) 1 and 2, running and staying still, sometimes confront each other in the act of writing.

Throughout the conference, teachers and scholars approached “mindfulness” not as a state of being assumed but as an activity acquired through practice.  Being present is one way to notice where we are in writing and life. At the same time, it’s a way to “detach” from any hang-ups that block a clear view of where we are.

Writing with mindfulness made the most sense to me articulated as a narrative, a quest, for finding a topic.  This was how Doug Hesse, Professor and Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Denver and the conference’s keynote speaker, began his talk.  Hesse used objects and images, personal history and cultural critique to ask how information of our present lives comes together in stories.  He narrated the evolution of his search for a keynote “topic” and through that story, came, circuitously, to a thesis.

That thesis came in the form of a charge: to notice the difference between two kinds of writing: narrating data in order to turn it into pithy prose and narrating in order to offer history and perspective, memory and vision.  The second sort–mindful writing?–has  long been the domain of a genre that maybe in jeopardy.  That genre is the “long form” essay.

Writing is everywhere in this digital age. But also everywhere is discourse that, in Hesse’s words, often seeks the “bon-mot” or snark, offering meaning that is “implied” not “stated.”  Without any indictment of technology (Hesse is an avid user) Hesse asked that we consider the proliferation of writing today and where it’s going.

That might be the most important question to ask of any writing topic.

To be clear:  I like pith, wit, innuendo. Even snark. In writing, in culture, in life. They confirm that, yes, I–“we”–are on the inside of the keen joke, the right position.  They affirm:  I exist.

But how much affirmation do we need, and where, ultimately does it go?  Can the academy and writing in the academy suspend affirmation for a bit and ask instead for heightened participation in our changing culture?

I don’t want to sound too rhapsodic (thought transporting, the conference did have its usual moments of scholarly angst and I was sure to insist on some discomfort by wearing my completely un-mountain-mindful sandals).  But being at this conference did offer a radical alternative to the standard  affirmations of academic conventions.

To be present at this untraditional conference I needed to suspend disbelief. And disbelief and critique define, if not identify, academics as academics. Doing yoga, long periods of quiet writing, chanting (well, pretending to chant) are all activities that suggest a wacky and wanton neglect of scholarly seriousness.  Where were the arguments? The theses? The running across greatness in the form of the year’s big idea?  The mindful workshops here focused on how to realize “what is” as writers, teachers, scholars–not what was or could be. Yet attention to the present was not some excuse for rejecting rigor.  Here in the mountains I experienced a kind of intensity of focus that confounded and enveloped me.

It takes practice, sometimes two or three days, to stay with, and run into a “discovery.” Rigorous attention is required when paying attention for seventy-five minute sessions. The standard questions of stuffy convention hall elevators:  “Is there some other panel more suited?” “Would I get more out of something or someone or somewhere else?” had no place here.  The culture of this conference was to stay put and listen. It lacked the “bon-mot” and,  in turn,  avoided manic meandering–the constant checking of conference programs for who’s who or could be,  the shuffling between panels, the looking around to find the next new thing not to miss.

I was grounded.  No pacing about the conference and, because I was a stranger to the altitude, no running up the Rocky mountains either.

And, when the workshops were over and it was time for an afternoon break, I realized that I had to learn to breathe without going for a run.  Put another way, we can progress in our thinking or writing without accelerating, without moving it forward.

Revision is “seeing writing again,”  just like Nancy Sommers once argued.  But it’s also seeing what is already there.  It’s staying with, and staying put, with the writing.

Without the potential for distraction or my routine escape (running) I had to face what was right in front of me: the twelve pages of researched prose I prepared for the conference.

“Distraction in Innovation” was the title of my paper, prepared for Saturday afternoon–the final session of the conference.  I think it offered the audience an opportunity to link  what we think of as “lower-order” writing (distracted or crappy writing done at the start of a piece or crappy writing done by novice writers) and what we consider “big ideas”—the stuff of intellectual “paradigm shifts.” It revealed examples of “higher order” distraction in great critical thinkers, the paradigm-shifters of  literary criticism (using Cleanth Brooks’ work in New Criticism as an example) and hinted at a relationship between this kind of criticism and the writing of beginning students in first-year comp classes.

But it moved fast.  Fast enough that I now want to return to the connections I tied together to make this conference paper, a fifteen minute story of how ideas work.  Before my sneakers hit the concrete again (only a few hours), I will try to employ some mindful techniques in order to think how I could have made these ideas more grounded for the audience, more tangible in “the present.”

But I will also consider presentness that moves over time and place.  I’ll ask questions of the article that take me not just to the mind and body, but also to the brain, the domain of that neglected genre–the essay. For it is the brain that holds memory and that makes the present noisy, unruly, and sometimes very busy.  Mindfulness bumping heads with the messy quest for purpose: perhaps this is a mess for writing to sort out.

So: What can be remembered from this essay?  Does it participate in something larger than the temporary affirmation of its existence?

I’ll have to find out when my feet get back moving on the crowded concrete of my home-town’s city streets.

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Writers Block

Last year, in the name of progress, I stopped recycling.  No more retooling old writing material for new purposes.  Sustainability be damned; I would forgo one of the key lessons of graduate school and go it alone: make it new, write an entirely different conference paper/article/book chapter.  I would do this not because the practice of reusing was beneath me but, rather,  because it was beyond me.  Around March of 2011 I realized that I no longer related to this work that had been so close to me for so long. Laser-focus attention on one manuscript, the “big” book, made my words sound so familiar they had become alien.

For any writer, or anyone trying to sustain writing over time, this condition is the result of dizzying revision–making the writing better and making it useable again and again.  Philip Roth sums up the practice best via his character Lonoff (the Malamud avatar) in The Ghost Writer:

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again….

Writing as revisiting where you already are.

If there is such a thing as post-unpublishedprose depression, it sinks in when your sentences’ stretch marks are so severe that they can’t be tamed with an updated citation or a new angle.  That’s the state I was in when I abandoned much of what I had written in the recent past.  New research on the history of complexity studies, on materiality, and on the politics and culture of the 1990’s would not get tied up in knots but remain straight and future-directed.  Progress.

Now I think that promise of novelty and innovation was a distraction. Perhaps a good one.  Eighteen months after I tried to run away from what I thought was dead prose I am returning to find out if there is something alive, something between familiarity and alienation.

For this upcoming AEPL conference I am reconnecting with some “old” historical research.  Research on New Criticism (the “formalist” literary movement that changed forever how we read literature and how we teach it, setting in motion generations of “close readers” of the “text itself”) feels like it belongs anew. Some of these ideas got started in an article I did for the special issue of College English, Materiality, Genre, and Language Use”.  (At the end of this post I include some of this talk and discuss how I think new histories of major intellectual “paradigm shifts” like New Criticism can tell us something about writing.)

There are two reasons why I found myself in this familiar territory again.  First, I looked over all my “new” writing of the last year and a half.  Whether a book review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter or a description of what my College’s Writing in the Majors Program does, it turns out that lots of what seemed novel were relatives of the ideas I’ve been hanging around with for years.

Normally that would depress me.  But in honor of complexity studies, and in particular the work of Physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, I am celebrating the axiom that everything is one big idea.  That idea needs visibility in order to test its validity and its vitality.

Here’s what Bar-Yam, discussing the New England Complex Studies Institute (NECSI) and its early attempts to define the origins of complexity as a transdisciplinary field of study, says about the relationship between connecting ideas and creating new ones:

The first task of NECSI was to organize a conference, the International Conference on Complex Systems, to declare the importance of the new field and give a venue for people to meet and discuss what we were interested in. I invited many guest researchers with broad vision to present at the conference…. At the first conference many of them stood up and started their lecture with the exact words, “And now for something completely different.”  They didn’t see the connections to the talk before theirs.  By the second conference this was said by fewer people and by the third or fourth we stopped hearing it.

Complexity happens when ideas are in conference with one another.

The second reason why I’m linking old writing with new projects is this: it belongs here; it has found a home.  How do I know that?

From my “Writers Block.”

The ever-prolific Steven Johnson famously describes the social nature of idea generating in his blog and books. And Randall Collins‘ work researches the origin of intellectual ideas in “social intellectual networks”–like-minded groups.  I think of these groups as blocks: writers talking about writing together.

This is my celebration of Writers Block.

Writers Block.  Definition: a real-time coming together of those whose writing processes and products are discussed as ongoing, mutually important realities.  Different from: “Writer’s Block”—an individual stuck in his or her composing—and “Reading Block”: a condition that comes from reading so much so fast that the prose can’t move out of the confines of itsef in order to be meaningful in other contexts.

A Writers Block can offer the long view of innovation and progress: that it’s an effort of consistent cutting and pasting.  When we hear one idea said aloud we know that there necessarily had to be something before, after and around it.

The blank page still has to be filled.  But it’s the mix that matters.


Excerpts from a draft of the talk “Distraction and the Seeds of Innovation” for the  AEPL conference, June 28-July 1, Estes Park, Colorado.

(From the Introduction):

One argument of this piece is that we cannot seed innovation thought a particular heuristic or mediation. Rather we have to acknowledge that the idea and the process of getting there are both a part of single activity. The procrastination, or “bad beginning” I just described is one way I practiced “higher order distraction.”  Higher order distraction is distraction that gets acknowledged as an element of the larger idea.  My lower-order, or bad beginning became a higher order distraction when it was visible, described, defined, and in turn, realized as relevant.

Through process pedagogy and cultural studies, deconstruction and the student-centered classroom, we in English studies have done a good job of breaking down distinctions between high and low culture, between student and professional writing, between composition and rhetoric.  But my goal in this talk is not to break down distinctions but to put them together.  As part of a larger project, a book I am writing this year called Reunion: Writing and Teaching the Locations of Innovation this talk considers how bad beginnings and big ideas emerge together and how the literacy activities of my discipline, English studies, can make that visible.

(From the Conclusion):

A central task for new critics was to distinguish between what was internal to the text and profession and what was external, what was natural and what was processed.  Scholarly writing like Brooks’ essay in College English mixed the two, but made clear that this was the not the natural order of things.  Segregation between kinds of scholarship would increase in the years just before and then during and after the rein of the New Critics. Literary criticism appeared in books and journal articles while various redirections in the discipline, such as the turn toward a research-centered agenda in the 1920’s and 1930’s and conflicts which arose in response to the new criticism of the 1940’s and 1950’s were addressed in conference panels at the MLA and the NCTE.  This distinction led the way for the separation between a critic and a scholar, and between the critic and the text, an important separation that marked, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the difference between researchers, or scholars and critics, which had a “generalist” appeal to them. The difference between the immediate concerns of the field, relegated to the oral domains of the discipline, and the more permanent, scholarly concerns of the field, published in journals, was formalized in the late 1940’s.  In 1947 the editor of the PMLA began to differentiate between “brown” and “blue” issues of the journal:  blue for scholarship in literary studies and brown for “proceedings” or “transactions” of meetings or committees. From 1883 through 1970, the PMLA published the MLA conference proceedings, bulletins, and committee votes and policies as supplements to the regularly published volumes of scholarship. Other redirections in the social structure of the culture, including the growth of colleges and the increase in college students, the addition of women students and faculty and the wide gaps in the literacy levels of students, were seen as issues for teachers, administrators, and those who did not engage in what Eliot called the work of the “individual soul.”  Teachers of the new freshman composition or communication courses were most likely to confront issues of student population, learning, and curriculum in their “informal” gatherings and publications.

The example here proved to be only one in an untold history of distraction and fight with distraction in literary and rhetorical story.  What happens when we don’t acknowledge the melding of brown and blue, high and low, distraction and disciplinary revelation?  I think the answer is that we lose the many ways the work we do in rhetorical, literary and cultural study connects with a complex networked world.

When I say “the work we do” I mean the practice of literary criticism, rhetorical theory, mindfulness and writing—the stuff of conferences, publication, teaching.  But I also mean to highlight the work we do with beginning writing very particularly. In the larger book project, I continue my study of “paradigm shifts” through the present day.  But in the second half, which I hope to initiate with a chapter entitled “Beginning Again: Basic Writing’s Complex Possibilities” I turn from reading to writing.

The large and varied world of first-year writing instruction is perhaps the most maligned area of English studies, if not the most discussed and the most profitable. But its properties as a laboratory for complexity are undervalued.  And I think the many layers of distraction and innovation that goes on by teachers, students, and institutions in the name of beginning or bad or lower level writing begs for reinterpretation.





Posted in What is Composition Studies?, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Reading Block

I ended the last post having finished The Future of Invention Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change by John Muckelbauer (SUNY UP, 2008), which I read while putting another book on hold, David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (Simon and Schuster 1996).   Tonight I dwell in the many directions each one of these leads.

1. David Denby’s Great Books:  The 1990’s (beginning in 1987 and ending in 2001, reasons to follow) is the refrain that follows my page-turning of Great Books.  Shocked by  my pleasure in reading this book, I find I literally hang on the barely-present plot. Me: “How will he fare with Hegel?” I worry. For Hegel. For Denby. For my memory of Hegel.  Then it all works out and we’re onto Mill.  Boring.  But then I flip over a few pages and realize that we’re hitting the Austen chapter. Me again: “Im so stressed…what will I do if he says even one disparaging remark against Elizabeth or Emma?”

But mostly the direction I take in reading this is back.  I am haunted here by a problem of history.  What were the culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s?  Was “culture” really about content? (The content was the “what” of books: the “canon” thought important to read in American higher education.)   The history of the present drives my pursuit of that near past.  Are the “culture wars” of today about form as they seem to be? (Now we talk about space, place, and shape…the “how” of literacy…what genre, media, interface to consume or connect to or remake.)

2. John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention  Not a book for pleasure, but engendering a kind of enthusiastic pursuit nonetheless.  Like many other scholarly works, I will need to hang around it for a while, until its purpose becomes clear.  Here, the direction is forward.  The future, the promise. I chase the find, not what was found.  “Can I see complexity working here?”  “What theory is at play that will bring me…not home, but to some place where all the questions connect?”  I seek confusion and progress, not relief.

Here’ s one example:  Because figuring out where I land on “complexity” as way of describing humanistic pursuits haunts my work, I wonder: “What is “complex” about what Muckelbauer says about audience?” (Audience—the “reader”—is central to any version of history or vision of culture.).  And “can I write that?” Here’s what he actually says about audience:

As a situated practice, rhetoric cannot simply filter situations and audiences through a generalized methodology, regardless of how intricate, flexible, or contextual that methodology may be.  But that does not mean that situatedness and singularity cannot be taught.  Indeed, we might say that within the very practices of generality, singular situatedness is always being taught (though in multiple ways and with diverse effects).

Wait.  What does that definition of rhetoric do to my reading direction?  I’m distracted; I think this post started out readable.  It’s veering into impenetrable.  What happened?

Reading block.

Not the inability to read, but the pursuit of meaning that prohibits reading on.  Lost in the labyrinth, no where to go but the the messy middle of the present.


Reading block is not reader’s block.  This isn’t about me, or any subject for that matter. It’s about navigating reading.  And that will be a relief to know once writing block sets in.  Hopefully, by next week.

Posted in Complexity Theory and Writing, The Culture Wars, Then and Now | 4 Comments

Writer’s Block and this Unbelievable Coffee Shop

 The problem of writing: in order to designate something exactly, an exact expressions are utterly unavoidable.  No at all because it is a necessary step, or because one can only advance by approximation; on the contrary, it is the exact passage of that which is under way.

The conversation about composition continues.

The above comes from the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Trans. Brian Massumi. Minnesota UP, 1987).  (There is a little more on these thinkers in the previous post).  Published in 1987, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia feels right for the late 80’s, but returns with a vengeance for relevance today.  Here I’ll just reflect on its implications for writing, writer’s block, and the difference between what we know about writing and how or if, we write.

The dynamic D&G duo—I’m not always so enthusiastic, but today I am—say something here that beginning writers everywhere live.  You’ve got to fake your way through composing.  Only Deleuze and Guattari argue that faking it, to “advance by approximation” avoids the trap of representation, in favor of the realization of rhizomes. Rhizomes, understood philosophically (as opposed to the way the term gets used in Botany) is a concept that embraces continual connections that can inject innovation and growth.  This positions stands in opposition to the narrative or origin-seeking search for knowledge and truth. Rhizomes imply that there are no clear-cut origin points nor distinct moments of truth, or telos.  They are the “radical middle ground” that started off my interest in keeping a blog.   Experienced writers might say that writing involves, to conjure a cliché, “process.”

Knowing that writing involves a process is a problem.  We who are not “beginner writers” get trapped in the already accepted belief system that you’ve got to embrace approximation in order to get somewhere.   We think we get it: there is no one linear pattern or passage to composing.  Isn’t that what “the process movement” in Composition was all about?  Freewriting—just write—might be the praxis to the theory of rhizomes.

But knowing first isn’t always productive. Non-beginners believe but don’t in reality live this epistemological heuristic.  We (I) want prose to be polished and just south of perfect (the ideal scholarly essay shows some strain for the sake of intellectual authenticity, but that genre’s motto might be:  never let them see you suffered).  We want what used to be called “the ideal text” though we don’t believe in that.  Writing is born free but everywhere writers are in chains (sorry for that cheap mash-up of Rousseau but Denby’s Great Books still is unfinished).

Beginning writers on the other hand, are stifled by not knowing that the map of a text makes itself known only after you’ve reached the destination.  In other words, you’ve got to write a lot to get even close by to where you want to go. The writer and education scholar Mike Rose helps define the preconceived beliefs about writing and knowledge as a condition writer’s block.  Rose’s interview with Krista Tippett from NPR goes into poetic detail about how “unprepared” students often remain there because of closed-off “passages” (tests, profiling, no time, resources, theory for practice). See Rose’s inspiring interview with Tibbit here.

Writer’s block belongs on the continuum of complexity.

The relationship between writing, complexity, blocks, and beginning anew introduces the conclusion of this post and its title.  I spent Tuesday afternoon avoiding the New York Public Library where the plan was to write.  Instead I over-caffeinated at a Manhattan coffee shop that insisted on blocking my writing.  In what struck me then as pretentious but now feels prophetic, Café Grumpy on West 20th Street in Chelsea prohibits laptops use.  Everywhere there are outlets but still computers are banished (that’s the last of these Rousseau quotation approximations).

Plenty of opportunities to write (open tables, outdoor seating,  outlets on every wall) and instead there was the steady buzz of conversing.  I caught a glimpse of one person sneaking a second on her cell and a clandestine tap or two on a tablet, but on the whole, this was a writing-free zone.

After the initial moments of shock, I had to make a quick decision: settle in to some non-composing activity or run for the hills (far uptown, towards home).

Reader, I stayed. I read for hours and finished a book.  It’s called The Future of Invention.







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Like Being at an Academic Conference, This Post is All Over the Place

I am trying to figure out the meaning behind what could be the most significant ritual of academic life: the conference.  I’m mostly referring to the big national conferences,  like the MLA or the CCCC but regional conventions work for this cultural-rhetorical exercise.

Three “official” (a few of my good friends agree) reasons justify the conference’s existence: a) networking: getting together in real time with the hope that this will be the year that someone attends and responds to my talk b) it’s getting away: in the last few years this one is probably primary, but whatever is second on my lists of threes usually is most memorable anyway c) creation of a concrete deadline: eight pages of something written is better than just one more book ordered from Amazon.

But while my meditation on the academic conference takes these official purposes into account, here I’m thinking of the conference as intellectual system. Randall Collins’ work started my original interest in “intellectual systems” especially  his book The Sociology of Philosophies but so did getting a degree in the humanities in the 1990’s, when we were “post” everything except for all the incredible innovations that were close to but not quite in the gaze of our mind’s eyes, trained as they were to see critique.

The internal and external, the play between sustaining and severing from paradigms connects to my happy embrace of conferences and my somewhat vexed relationship to systems theory.   Conferences remind me of where I was and what I haven’t done since, and what everyone was talking about in preparation for the next year’s convention.  At once stifling and stimulating, academic conventions perform the paradox of potentiality—the what if that comes about when people gather together in airless hotel rooms to gaze out at the horizon of innovation.  We go to conferences in order to present and be present, and in order to distract and be distracted—to be together somewhere else.

And this is a basic truth of complex systems:  in order to get here, we must go there.  In order to go there, we have to practice being “here.” We exist in relational spheres.

I’m researching the happenings of one conference, the 1994 Conference on Complexity, connected to the Sante Fe Institute and I’m considering preparations for another conference, the upcoming June conference sponsored by the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning. 

Both are about perspective, practice: the reality that can be known from observations and relations.

Observations, relations, “assemblages”–all tag neatly into an evolving oeuvre of complex composition.  Alex Reid’s blog digital digs offers some of the best work in this area. His recent posts on object-oriented rhetoric reveals a growing interest in posthumanistic theory, criticism, rhetoric, and pedagogy.  Political Scientist Jane Bennett calls this “a political ecology of things” in her recent book Vibrant Matter.  And a new or renewed embrace for the philosopher Bruno Latour and other heavy hitter theorists like Deleuze and Guattari speak to a desire to explain the ethos in the networked telos.  (I love Kasia Skonieczna’s blogpost on these thinkers.)

The digital pushes assemblages to the surface. But conferences, too, are a kind of technology for gathering with purposeful distraction.

All of this to ask: what is the link between complexity and the “great books,” the canon, and the culture wars of the nineties?  The back-story for this question far exceeds the energy level I have for this medium (but last week’s “post” helps).  At base, I’m asking about the connection between a certain kind of theorizing and a certain kind of practice, about the recursive relationship between ideas and innovation, between reading and doing, between canons (of thought, of literature) and composing.

Alex Reid’s discussion on the failures of 90’s cultural studies and theory helps articulate what could be the link between canons and complexity:

 As I see it, having been raised (professionally speaking) in the nineties height of cultural studies and postmodern theory, there is no real explanation there for how ideology functions. And when I say real, what I mean is that the explanations exist solely in the frames of representation and discourse. These are clearly important elements to examine, but they strike me as insufficient. We can speak about the material effects of representation/discourse (e.g. arguing that advertisements affect body image leading to eating disorders) but we have a difficult time accounting for the compositional processes. To use an analogy, we have a kind of spontaneous generation theory (e.g. flies spontaneously generate from dead animals). Our methodological shortcoming, I believe, is that we try to account for all of this strictly in terms of representation and discourse.

I’m wondering if it was possible to be “raised professionally” in the nineties.  This sounds awfully cynical, but it’s worth considering the sociology of intellectual uncertainty. What does it mean to be raised when everything under you is deconstructed and everything ahead of you ephemeral?

“Raised” suggests a developmental process— a telos.  We started somewhere and then cultural studies and postmodern theory (and process and post-process and dot coms, and attack on public higher education) fed us so we could grow up into mature beings. Reid knows where the theory of the nineties falls short, and is aware, too that “being raised”–if we are to survive–must involve more than a vertical trajectory.

What isn’t quite clear is whether the humanities can or should stand tall again.   Less raising, more grazing around, maybe?  What are the models, and what is the language for an epistemology of the conference?


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Beginning Again and the End of Teaching

What is teaching?  Is it conversation, community, correctness, conversion? Does it begin and end with the classroom, with students, with knowledge?

In my parochial vision, I think of teaching in terms of the Humanities, a project that, in one scholar’s words, aims to “make intellectual life more open and democratic by enlarging the circle of participants.” (That incredibly arresting phrase comes from Kurt Spellmeyer’s Arts of Living, SUNY UP 2003 but see the writing program he directs at Rutgers for an enactment of this idea.)

But don’t topics shrink, border off, outline rather than enlarge? This post is about opening and closing, ending and beginning.  And teaching.

I’m beginning this sabbatical by ending two activities central to my profession (listed here as 1 and 3, interrupted by something different, but associated):

1)   the end of teaching: last class of the semester for a year, English 330 “Fiction” with twenty-one presentations of Man Gone Down, May 15th, 2-4 40);

2)   a transporting visit to The New York Public Library: this past Monday, it was raining in midtown, I had tea, observed people being quiet… I actually felt something stirring in the silence…could it be a topic?;

3)   leading the last college-wide workshop as one of the coordinators at my campus’ Writing Across the Curriculum program: around twenty-five faculty members and administrators participated, May 24th, 3pm.

Amidst all of this, surrounded by it (in my bag, on my kindle, with me on the supermarket line, at the school pick-up place) is David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (Simon and Schuster 1996).  It is an account of returning to Columbia University at mid-life to take again two required “core” courses “Lit-Hum”(Literature and Humanities) and “CC” (Contemporary Civilization) he passed through as an undergraduate of the early 1960’s.  Denby’s book, I find, is immediately topical.

It’s about the past—the 1990’s and what was then the hot-button controversy about “the” canon: the tradition of Western literature and culture that survives in the curriculum of these two courses.  And it is about other pasts: Denby’s in relation to Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, etc, and whatever he (and we) can glean from the “actual” pasts as alive in the works of these canonical writers.

It is also about teaching. The book contains long passages describing (in very loosely understood ethnographic style) the Columbia undergraduate classrooms that Denby joined in 1991 and 1992.  Descriptions of students and teachers are captivating if somewhat filtered and idealized. There are heated discussions and awkward silences among students and professors, and there is a journalistic account of the inner life of the reader. But there is nothing of the extracurricular activity that so dominates teaching as I live it.  Where are the papers to read? (No drafts, no in-class writing, no blackboard…bless the 90’s.) Certainly, there is nothing about “outcomes,” “rubrics,” or “standards.”  And while a great deal of ambivalence is brought to bear on the choice of texts (and a hilarious riff on the word “texts” itself) there is nothing about the anxiety of teaching texts as something to do in the first, or last place. Or even at mid-life.

Of course the book is from the perspective of the observer, not a student, not a professor, not an administrator.  But can observation be a kind of teaching?  Can it enlarge “the circle of participants” in the thinking life?

This is what Denby says in response to one faculty member from the early 1990’s who thought the canon was both out of context and too difficult:

But wasn’t that the greatness of the course–that intelligent but untrained people hurled themselves at those gigantic works, struggled, made ‘errors,’ read parts of the books badly, learned something from their teachers and each other?

Is this a view of teaching to prepare students for the muddle of midlife?

I’ll end with a question:

I’d like to know what happened between Denby writing that about teaching and, some fifteen years later, Sidney I. Dobrin writing something completely different about writing, and teaching.  Dobrin’s 2011 polemic about discipline of Composition (PostcompositionSouthern Illinois UP) might be the antithesis to Denby’s meditation on the muddle of teaching:

In this way, ‘postpedagogy’ suggests a new mantra for writing studies: stop talking  about teaching.  This new mantra urges researchers to step beyond the limits of thinking about writing in terms of classroom application and observation, calling instead for research that begins to tear down the very boundaries of the field in order to develop more useful, accurate theories of writing.

Are there any limits to thinking about writing in terms of classroom application and observation?

So begins my year in the boundaries of no classroom.

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Psalms for David


He exists across an ocean of memory.  It is deep, almost frozen, and swimming with monsters.  Beowulf, on a dare, once swam across an icy sea in his suit of mail.  There were sea beasts–“fiend-corpses“–that tried to pull him down into the dark, where they would rend the drowned king limb from limb.  “On a whim,” he went.  He made it, soaked, frozen, and spent. If he’d known what was waiting for him, would he have taken that dare?  If he’d known what was waiting for him, would he have made it across, or would he have gone down?

(Michael Thomas, Man Gone Down)


“I want so to see the Arno. The rooms the Signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno. The Signora had no business to do it at all. Oh, it is a shame!”

“Any nook does for me,” Miss Bartlett continued; “but it does seem hard that you shouldn’t have a view.”

Lucy felt that she had been selfish. “Charlotte, you mustn’t spoil me: of course, you must look over the Arno, too. I meant that. The first vacant room in the front–” “You must have it,” said Miss Bartlett, part of whose travelling expenses were paid by Lucy’s mother–a piece of generosity to which she made many a tactful allusion.

“No, no. You must have it.”

“I insist on it. Your mother would never forgive me, Lucy.”

“She would never forgive me.”

The ladies’ voices grew animated, and–if the sad truth be owned—a little peevish. They were tired, and under the guise of unselfishness they wrangled. Some of their neighbours interchanged glances, and one of them–one of the ill-bred people whom one does meet abroad—leant forward over the table and actually intruded into their argument. He said:

“I have a view, I have a view.”

Miss Bartlett was startled. Generally at a pension people looked them over for a day or two before speaking, and often did not find out that they would “do” till they had gone. She knew that the intruder was ill-bred, even before she glanced at him. He was an old man, of heavy build, with a fair, shaven face and large eyes. There was something childish in those eyes, though it was not the childishness of senility. What exactly it was Miss Bartlett did not stop to consider, for her glance passed on to his clothes. These did not attract her. He was probably trying to become acquainted with them before they got into the swim. So she assumed a dazed expression when he spoke to her, and then said: “A view? Oh, a view! How delightful a view is!”

“This is my son,” said the old man; “his name’s George. He has a view too.”

(E. M. Forster, A Room with a View).

for nbmjdy

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Tactics, Topics, Threes

Five pages by 3pm.  Six hours on Tuesday.  Half a section before lunch.  These are proclamations towards progress, strategies to start and finish, ways to get it, writing, done.

I remember when I first used these heuristics. In graduate school, one of my friends (seventeen years and counting) used to monitor her dissertation progress in number of hours spent sitting down, facing the computer, hands on keyboard.  She distinguished the real state of work from engaging in activities that resembled working, even resided near it, but did not, actually qualify as work. Top three of these activities: needing to “check” something (even before smart phones, there were things to check), confirming with calendar that today was indeed on the schedule, and eating.

Writing begets writing, writing wrestles out a topic, a topic terminates the torture of writing under physical, psychological, or temporal constraint.  Or so we believed.  I’ve been using versions of these techniques for two decades.

Now these tactics for writing are returning as a kind of topic about the relationship between beginnings and endings, about firsts and finishing and torture.  Or, if not torture, then the tricks we play to goad us into a good day’s end. And, also, I’m considering those brief interludes of pleasure that peek into the push to progress.  So I’m going on record: I was looking forward to sitting down to write this.  It never occurred to me that the week’s musings and ideas, phrases and fleeting sentences would not yield up a topic.  For this entry or for…what’s coming.

(Clearly we have moved out of the pleasure paragraph.)

The search for a subject has been the lingering concern of every utterance spoken or scribed over the last few months.  When do you declare direction and when do you go on…forward, anyway? I know I describe familiar composing dilemmas–product and process, thesis-driven essay, open-ended thought paper, intention and invention.

But none of these is my topic.

I am, however, interested in, if only distracted by, the sets of threes that hover over the topic quest. Threes I think are essential to any list that is also describing a condition, a potential coming into view.  Threes dominate rhetoric, are the key components of persuasion,  Aristotle tells us.

Threes also pervade the modern systems of power as Foucault described them, the set of relations that mediate our every day lives.  It’s worth quoting a bit at length from an interview (conducted by then graduate student, now History professor Michael Bess) where Foucault calls on threes to declare a position on morality:

Question: Are there positive themes in your concept of what is good? In practice, what are the moral elements on which you base your actions toward others?

Foucault: I’ve already told you: refusal, curiosity, innovation.

Question: But aren’t these all rather negative in content?

Foucault: The only ethics you can have, with regard to the exercise of power, is the freedom of others. I don’t tell people, “Make love in this way, have children, go to work.”

Question: I have to admit, I find myself a bit lost, without points of orientation, in your world—because there’s too much openness.

Foucault: Listen, listen . . . How difficult it is! I’m not a prophet; I’m not an organizer; I don’t want to tell people what they should do. I’m not going to tell them, “This is good for you, this is bad for you!” I try to analyze a real situation in its various complexities, with the goal of allowing refusal, and curiosity, and innovation. History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), 1-2, 11:

We are conditioned by power, by pedagogy, by rhetoric, to think of what’s first and last, what’s above and below, what’s higher and lower, what’s opening and closing, the beginning and the end.  Technology, perhaps, changes this vertical perspective, (thank you apple lion for horizontal desktops).  Maybe search engines reorient us towards an between.  Foucault’s “refusal, and curiosity, and innovation” certainly moves me to a middle. These heuristics take topics out of the next step, past the temporal.

And at least for now, that’s where I sit.

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Ideas, Innovation and Some Eczema

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Title Track

The title is provisional for this blog, for everything, really.  It comes from my “title” as a professional—“Associate Professor.”  Here is the gist of the Wikipedia entry for Associate Professor: “mid-level, usually tenured, professor.”  And here are the highlights from the definition of “associate” from the MerriamWebster dictionary: “to join as a partner, friend, or companion; obsolete: to keep company with: attend; to join or connect together: combine; to bring together or into relationship in any of various intangible ways (as in memory or imagination)…to come or be together as partners, friends, or companions; to combine or join with other parts; unite.”

So this blog will be about and a performance of the “mid-level” and the “social.”  These combinations, connections, and relationships that occur in the time of (and immediately before) my year of disassociation: My Sabbatical.

That could be the real title of the blog, but part of my goal here, even if I don’t write about the issue directly, is to muse about being an “associate,” being in what Henry James called “The Middle Years” which are also my very moments of “leave” from twelve years as a professor of English and writing.

I am debating whether I should post my calendar (which I printed out–it’s real!) so that I may make a public relationship with my aspirations for  the year of dis-association.  But I haven’t decided on that yet. Though I will by next week.  Because indecision about projects must not last past the week’s end, because weekly is the goal for updating the blog, and, in turn, updating you (me, associations) on what happened.

This week: working on my proposal for the C’s, moving my article forward (from my paper given at the C’s “Complex Compositions”).  Next step: rethinking “the radical middle,” something about systems, writing, innovation, dead-lines.  For inspiration and the turn of this term, I’m looking to the final chapter by Livingston  in Emergence and Embodiment(Eds. Clarke and Hansen).



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