Tuesday, December 21, 2010

After the solstice full-moon eclipse: Building and sustaining community for work and play

December 21, 2010 

As we turn from last night’s winter solstice with its full moon eclipsing and then refilling, luminous over the southwestern horizon, as the sun fills this morning instead of snow falling, our cycle rotates with increasing light, longer days, and opportunities.  The darkness hasn’t disappeared; life must have always felt precarious to anyone wide-awake.  How, then, do we live into opportunity, not nostalgic and not too innocent?

I have to force myself to shut down Tweetdeck in order to attend sufficiently to my work, which paradoxically means being increasingly tuned into the internet, into a network trying to be community, the local/global perplexity/necessity, and trying to engage constructively the critics of public education.  The key turns on unifying instead of making divisions, on building common ground instead of attacking or dismissing.  That’s hard.

And it pushes me toward notions and places I have dismissed.  A few hours ago over coffee, my wife and I discussed the presence and absence of community.  The conversation brought back memories from a lost age, of rubbing shoulders with family members or strangers brought together in a task too large or sad for a neighbor to bear alone.  It seemed so small at the time, these acts of moving furniture, clearing rubbish, or digging postholes.  In that small-town culture, in those work-parties, I’d have wandered in my mind, “Some day I’ll do something important like write a book or . . .”  Perhaps I lived into the ellipsis; we’ve travelled a long way from the mundane anyway.

Now I wonder if those potlucks and moving parties were somehow stitched together into a non-obvious pattern that gave the grounding to growth, to support an expanding consciousness about the big things in which the cold war, the segregation, the religious and ethnic hostilities could turn less harsh.  An increased vision for social justice, peace and freedom must have depended on the common breaking of bread and sweating together.  What does all that mean today?

I think it means that in this culture we simply need to value the small moments.  We can carve out times to touch shoulders in good work and in unscored softball or horseshoes.  Because the crush of too-busy means these moments will be spaced further apart, we’ll need to stitch ourselves together with social networking.  We can do it.  Building and sustaining community for work and play: the key.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Remember warehouse depositories of used books
Where people like us, readers of lost lines
Wonder at pages dissolving in the scent of must.
Entire shelves of someone’s dreams still
Enclosed in cellophane wrap like unopened gifts.

How many artists and poets lived out the quiet
Desperation, yet to be discovered by a patron,
A newspaper magnate, a rich widow? Who
Knows the meaning but inhabitants of the ark
While all the world swims unaware?

The powerful, at least those elected to office,
Sound eloquent, passionate, into the lens
In a mostly empty chamber, into midnight,
Speaking for the record, and changing sides
With the tide. Yet don’t be disillusioned.

These monuments sculpted in stone, in wax
From candle-lit moments or in twittered text
That evaporates almost instantly give breath
While we wait out the flooded time so hope
Slowly crafts the vessel to carry us home.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Post the 12-16 Omnibus

December 17, 2010

In the aftermath of last night’s jarring political action in which the Senate dropped the Omnibus bill, I’m reading my morning paper: The NWP Daily http://paper.li/dogtrax/nwp). In recent weeks, I’ve felt jerked around quite a bit as the House, the Senate, and the White House played around with taxation and funding. I’d watched the Senate floor live via cspan and read various commentaries on the compromises and negotiations over earmarks. I’d made numerous calls to congressional offices and urged persons associated with our University of Maryland Writing Project to engage in advocacy for National Writing Project funding. Most of us know it by experience as by far the preeminent professional development for educators. The House dodged, the White House compromised, and then the Senate dropped the ball. My feelings might condense into a title posted on Twitter this morning: “All I want for Christmas is my profession back.” (http://jasoncourtmanche.blogspot.com/2010/12/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-my.html )

That’s a bit of the context in which I looked at the Kevin’s generous gathering of news. Just under the banner, on the top left of the front page was an item from budtheteacher:

Third place

The third place is
a term used in the concept of
community building to refer to social
surroundings separate from the two
usual social environments of home and
the workplace. In his influential boo...

So I was skimming, ok? Given the terms “community,” “home,” and “workplace” and the almost exact letters, I read it as “third space,” which is a rich and complex concept from Homi Bhabha (Location of Culture, Routledge, 1994). But the link didn’t give attribution to Bhabha and seemed incomplete, so at some point I looked closely enough to see it was “place” not “space.” Now I was into it, though, wondering why this was featured in Kevin’s news and on Bud’s radar screen.

I haven’t figured that out, but I was pulled back into “third space” which has lodged in my consciousness by Bhabha’s provocative writing about hybridity in culture with the potential for . . . well, although I don’t know if Bhabha or Kevin or Jason or anyone else would say it this way, but I sense it’s about making peace. The mess in Congress mirrors the bipolar divisive thinking and action that’s all over our world, that powers hostile words and wars. Third space gives a transformative alternative to this.

I began to wonder if NWP-ers were in position to act with this concept. I think we already are, at our best, as we bring forward an experiential empowerment that shifts the locus of external “expert” authority from assessments, edicts, and lecturing and moves it toward constructivist local knowing. Trying to be appropriately modest yet empowered, we-NWP-ers have the complexity of thought to engage third space and to broker between the haves and the have-nots. Can we bring that capacity to our advocacy work involving hotly divided Reds and Blues in government?

If we are to move into that audacious work, we might consider the writing about political situations. I’m still wading slowly through Bhabha—actually, it’s staying on the shelf while I’m trying to write our Continued Funding Application. I’m troubled by the funding morass and distracted from trying to manifest a third space between/within university and school systems that barely share common language and have many hidden agendas consuming most of our resources. Perhaps it helps to summon the energy needed by connecting with the vision in third space. I’m remembering the notion of “universal audience” (Perlman?) in which we write not for the actual contingency but with an eye toward our vision. In NWP, we’ve also had the taste of the vision.

And I read from another twitter lead yesterday that persons in their 60s have higher emotional intelligence than others, and this means (according to the published research from I forget where, but can find it if you need to know) that we older guys can see/construct more opportunity in apparently negative circumstances (than younger folks, including us when we were there). So let’s take a deep breath and try.

If you want more of the sense of “third space,” you might try out something I found in a quick Google search. Paul Meredith gives a fairly readable and condensed version. He wrote a dozen years ago (http://lianz.waikato.ac.nz/PAPERS/paul/hybridity.pdf ) that “the emergence of a cultural politics in Aotearoa/New Zealand concentrated and contested around the binary of Maori (the colonised) or Pakeha (the coloniser).” Notice the similarity to the situation in our government and funding situation. Meredith continues, “The dichotomous categories of ‘us/them’, ‘either/or’ have alarmingly found an increased currency resulting in adversarial polarities premised on exclusion and purity.”

Yet within this difficulty, he sees the opportunity with the third space. I’ve copied about 7 sentences that offer language for catching the vision of transformative work, possible by NWP-ers at this time as we move ahead past December 16:

“Thus, the third space is a mode of articulation, a way of describing a productive, and not merely reflective, space that engenders new possibility. It is an ‘interruptive, interrogative, and enunciative’ (Bhabha 1994) space of new forms of cultural meaning and production blurring the limitations of existing boundaries and calling into question established categorisations of culture and identity.

The concept of the third space is submitted as useful for analysing the enunciation, transgression and subversion of dualistic categories going beyond the realm of colonial binary thinking and oppositional positioning. (Law 1997) Despite the exposure of the third space to contradictions and ambiguities, it provides a spatial politics of inclusion rather than exclusion that “initiates new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration and contestation.” (Bhabha 1994: 1) . . . the possibility of a cultural politics that avoids a ‘politics of polarity.’

Any redesign must recognise and provide for the hybridity dynamic of those relations. This redesign should take place in an alternative ambivalent site, a third space, where there is ongoing [re]vision, negotiation, and if necessary, renewal of those cultural practices, norms, values and identities inscripted and enunciated through the production of bicultural ‘meaning and representation’. (Bhabha 1994)”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Passion & Education

Lee Kolbert (http://macmomma.blogspot.com/ ) recently posted the provocative question:

I appreciate being reminded of this question. It reminds me of the elders who know to ask each time they walk in the well-worn ritual circle: “Are we going the right way?” Passion offers guidance, but it encompasses suffering as well as excitement and, therefore, may not always be immediately the platform for leading others. I believe it is the basis for finding the place to build the character, knowledge, skills, and compassion to lead.
Many persons are so hungry for the fervor of passion that they are susceptible to following someone with the exterior signs of it. A person may also attempt to lead others prematurely. As repeatedly demonstrated by tragedies associated with charismatic cult leaders as well as by wasteful trendy educational “solutions,” this is dangerous and/or a distraction to progress. A person who has not yet gone deeply enough with passion to develop wisdom and care may not be able to offer safe passage for others.
The true leader I respect wants others to follow their inner truth more than he/she wants the ego boost of having followers, or worse yet, worshippers.
I wonder, then, if passion comes before educating. As suggested by McTeach's response to Kolbert's question, a person’s passion may lead away from educating. An educator whose passion is elsewhere, may be in the wrong profession; and a person whose passion has not been pursued deeply enough to offer safe practice may not be the best teacher.
I take seriously the direction given by Joseph Campbell and others to “follow your bliss.” That path seemed to lead me away from teaching to story and horses, and it brought me back with a joy for learning and with more respect for inner truth.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Home on the Path

Frost’s poignant poem about the two paths diverging wants extension in my experience. What about the unmarked path that forms while walking, made as a person’s nose develops a more acute sense of place? Perhaps it’s a recovery of an inborn gift that gets lost because it’s devalued by our externally-driven culture. Perhaps we’re born knowing the truth but we forget.
For thirty-plus years, I wandered the billboarded highway of an academic profession filled with organizational conferences and refereed journals and merit-pay discipline. As I did so, the intrinsic quality of situated knowing retreated further and further into my interior. For me, the academic pathway filled with a crowd, while I felt increasingly alone, lost, and farther from home.
Truth and home cannot abide the bashing by external expertise, the grand theorizing that’s divorced from “felt sense,” and the celebrating of keynoters, whether in the crowded ballroom or in the session with more presenters on the panel than in the audience. I’ve walked each of those rooms, lecturing and listening, storytelling and applauding, thinking I was home or getting there, but the hollow gnawing grew.
The quality of truth that I long for can’t be found around places characterized by loud arrogance, especially my own. My voice goes shrill and abandons me when I forget to respect the penetrations of authentic experience. Sarcasm or even a faint smirk betrays me, and if I’m paying attention I feel the lie.
Truth won’t hang around the “poor-me” either. The part that came in as a birthright, following Wordsworth’s clouds, seeks out big questions, like those a child asks, and risks searching for them. Truth befriends the courage to stand up, to discern, to risk, to act for good.
When I’m honest, being abandoned by my own truth hurts. My sense of being home cannot be severed from feeling that truth is nearby. If these two are separated, I’m haunted by the loss. It’s easy then to get drugged-out and not even know it. Overdosing on food, drink, spectator sports, or internet activity hides the pain, temporarily. But to wake up seeing my life lived out inauthentically hurts worse, especially when I’ve felt how good it feels to live with integrity.
As so often happens in the old tales, one day a stranger came to the village; in this case, it happened to be the university building where I was tenured and officed. My apprehension of and longing for the authentic, like the faithful semi-sleeping dog, woke up and started sniffing the air. Where did that strange resonance track? It reminded me of something like yeasty fresh-baked bread, like home. It led to the National Writing Project.
The path with the politically-correct meetings then got left in favor of something more like what we used to call “bush-whacking,” getting off the well-traveled path to seek out the hidden treasure. Although it wouldn’t mean merit-pay increases, I decided to apply for an NWP site, because these were the folks who were committed to local knowing and to supporting the teachers who would risk theorizing their own practice. Most of the persons in positions of power still don’t understand what that means. Maybe they never will.
Perhaps a person can be home and alone, but family offers advantages. With the National Writing Project, I’ve found I don’t have to be alone with my convictions about situated knowledge. These family gatherings of twenty or more persons have affirmed meaning that is actually grounded in significant experience; and the experiences are not just personal but are on the quest of social justice, joy of learning, increased tolerance, healthy ecology, and respect for multiplicity.
My breath deepens with the feel of home and the presence of friends. The home-path prioritizes respect for situated knowing, enriches it in a discourse community that theorizes practice, and leans into continuous inquiry that moves toward a world ecology of peace and justice.
That’s what I love about the National Writing Project.
In a world where so much of what I hear does not ring true, I want a home that dispels cynicism and affirms integrity. We can work toward education that helps persons discern what is true. Citizens can learn to read the tone of voice of would-be leaders and vote according to the presence of integrity and commitment to social justice. We can take on the challenge of moving ourselves and others toward better alignment so that we do walk our talk and so that our policy statements and actions align with peace, justice, freedom for all, and the other values affirmed in our constitutions and creeds.
Doing this is what I love about the work of the National Writing Project.