Friday, October 12, 2012

Leapfrogging Past I-Dunno

          When my college students genuinely say, “I don’t know,” I want them to check out the kind of knowing that they’re referencing.  I’d like them to realize that only one kind of knowing appears to be unavailable.  But don’t stop.  Don’t turn up the earplugs.  Don’t tweet.  Instead look for an opening into other knowings.  Then “I-don’t-know” might start transforming. 

Instead of that ever-red stop sign, it might even make a Hogwarts-porthole.  It might offer scary admission into personal authority and crack open a closed system.  Formal education has discredited so many knowings.  The red squiggly line that pops up under “knowings” documents the prison bars that arrest our freedom and keep us from claiming creativity and reaching insight. 
            English teachers, like me, have responsibility for grammar school instruction that inclined the developers of this Word program to impose the default that says a singular knowing is superior to knowings.  Our education system has put in prison phenomenology, analytical psychology, instinctual knowing, knowing by “feel,” the essence of many spiritualities, and many other –ologies as if one epistemology has the iron-fist authority of truth.  That’s criminal.
            Perhaps I’m making a big deal, but think about what’s happening when highly intelligent young adults stop their inquiry process with the phrase “I don’t know.”  They do so because twelve years of schooling has force fed the lie that knowing equals a direct link to a textbook line or lecture note.  I’m especially agitated because I see the affordance of digital media endangered by this stranglehold.
            In our course on Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice, when I don’t respond critically to “I don’t know” and when instead I encourage the student to go on anyway, I love seeing color come into washed-out faces.  Eye-windows clear and open onto greater vistas.  I hear wonder, wandering, and imagination even when the articulation breaks up into disfluencies.  Sometimes then I glimpse the wanderer wincing, probably in memory of being struck by the iron glove for not sounding rehearsed and fluent, for daring to diverge from third-person, from objectivity, from the straight-lined highway. 
            Robert Bly published Leaping Poetry about 37 years ago, opening with his translation of Ortega y Gasset: “So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don’t find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do then is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time.”  Bly invokes the ancient "time of inspiration" and calls for dragonsmoke: “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”  On the waves of Web2.0 today, our imagination sniffs dragonsmoke, anticipating being powered up with multiple knowings and leaping in digital media productions.  But this potential explosion of creative energy will not vitalize schools and classrooms that are managed by wardens instead of inspired by poets.
            Right about here I’m wanting to leap in two different directions.  One goes on the smoke trail that offers to inform the nascent genre/s of digital media production into a different discursive form, one that leaps with the creative associations begging in the buzz of adjacent image, word, sound, and effects.  The other direction keeps more to the initial track in this post about dealing with “I don’t know.”  So for now, let’s simply footnote for later elaboration the dynamic in “leaping poetry” that links to the psychoanalytic construct of “amplification” (Jung on the nature of psyche) and that keys the design of high-quality digital media production.
            For now, while leaping poetry points to a special discursive form, the focus here is to liberate knowing.  Learning should be free to romp in multiplicity.  Learners can highlight LEAPING as an essential attribute of knowing; we don’t have to show almost mindless reaction to a break in straightline thinking as if it’s a command to stop.  “I don’t know” could signal a leap; we don’t have to hear a command to stand at attention until the external authority gives the next straightline step. 
            For an example of a wrongheaded action along these lines, look at the Common Core Standards, at least as I fear they are interpreted and enacted and assessed.  The emphasis on expository writing threatens leaping because the tradition in exposition emphasizes straight lines.  Straight lines can be good; but when play and creativity and imagination risk extinction and when an innovative resource comes in the door, the point of emphasis needs to wise up.
            The search for meaning and purpose and identity signal the promise land, and kids of all ages scent the lip-smacking flavors in digital media.  But devices never automatically make us free and good.  We’re at such a huge moment in education with the dramatic potential of new technologies.  Let’s not kid ourselves about the power they bring for engagement.  The chance for liberation flips equally or more likely to greater control.  Let’s not lock the infusion of new technologies such as 1-1 iPad/equivalent devices and co-learning with smartboards in the jail cells; when the testing industry and political jailers cling to the laws of print culture, they’re marking innovative practice as criminal.  That’s bad.
            Digital media promise civic responsibility, creativity, cognitive growth, and much more (see eight essential elements of digital literacies); this horizon honors collective intelligence, negotiation, play, performance, and much more (see Confronting the Challenges ofParticipatory Culture). Digital media production promises so much when it gives good visual images that are composed artistically along with powerful words on screen and in voice tracks as well as authentic sound and purposeful movement.  Note that all the resources (visual image, text on screen, voice track, sound track, transitions and other effects) are led in by crucial modifiers (good, artistic, powerful, voice, authentic, purposeful); quality in the infusion of technology demands professional leadership.  In today’s culture, teachers are not trusted to do this, and the failure of our political system is to substitute test for trust.
            What tyranny to test out, to extinguish with high-stakes assessment, these essential dynamics and their potential for advancing peace and justice because they are not as easily red-lined with “standards” of spelling, pre-digested topic/thesis statements, “the” 5-paragraph essay, number of syllables, “t-units,” and similar analytics of a dead monarchy.
            One closing note for now: I’m not advocating abandon.  All opinions are not equal.  Real education includes learning to tell better composition, more sound thinking, more just ecologies, and responsible liberty and justice for all.  Learning worth having affirms leadership that enthuses authority and loves.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Dense fog warning.  That’s the “special weather statement” through the late night to mid-morning.  That’s the Special Whether Warning—whether or not the light will get through.

Yesterday’s special insight flashed by so fast, unplanned, of course, for how else would in-sight appear.  It must be like the apparitions at the peripheral edge, creatures not especially shy, but insistent on special sight, demanding an attention worthy of gold.

I did allow the fragment to voice.  For she first flitted by pretty inarticulate, in the dark drive to work, light rain falling.  Driving well in advance of the morning rush, my mind rehearsed the tale of “Golden Water,”* the feature for class a few hours away.  (See footnote for background on the story.)  As brainwaves carried recollections and associative connections, the frame of Alf Layla Wa-Layla, also known as A Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights, brought in the wonder about Shahrazad, more about the Sultan who put to death each previous night’s wife.  Ah, yes: the monstrous opportunity.  That’s the genie in the bottle.  Oh, right—the cynical voice tosses aside genies and reaches instead for the alcoholic beverage or an equivalent tranquilizer.

But if we stay sober enough, focused enough, we can look into the twilight zone, into the fiction for the true.  When a story gifts us with a shock that says “outrageous!” we have the whether-warning: whether we can enter the symbolic space that makes new meaning or not.  Most times, it’s not.  The opportunity gets shelved until we make time and space to wonder.  And life easily fills with distractions, the “news” that’s really not enlightening, the shows that are only showy, superficial.

Consider taking a wonder off the shelf.  Like this one about the Sultan & Shahrazad, like the Genie in the bottle; for the bottle can be seen as holding our insatiable soul  and “the killing of spirit is happening every day,” not just in fairytales.  Teaching stories invite us to wonder about the Sultan-Shahrazad drama inside us.  The quotation marks just above mark what I said in class., but don’t worry—it zipped right over the heads of all of us, including mine.  After all, it’s not something that will be on the test.  Ha!

I wonder.

And if I wonder long enough, asking for more than the temporary fixes, the spirit in the bottle bubbles up with the effervescent proof that the water of life is no fairy tale; the Golden Water story tells the truth.  The truth about hiding in Bud Light, about lies forthcoming in the Big Debate, about undecided voters who ask for falsehood rather than look at the costs of war, of big oil, of choosing clan and comfort and certainty over the flickering scary conscience. 

The Sultan woke up from his living-nightmare after hearing enough stories, after living with love, after passage through the underworld and coming out anew.  The renewal we want comes in shedding the caterpillar skin of egomania into a radical realization of our interconnections.  See—that doesn’t even sound like news; we’ve heard similar words before.  Perhaps what we haven’t realized, like the Sultan, is that we have more than newsprint; we already have children.  Shahrazad has borne them; but like the Sultan in “Golden Water,” we don’t see what’s right before our eyes.

Our litany of stories hold secrets about the gold in life, and when we wake up from living the nightmare, we’ll see them.  Well, we may have to enact them, but the creative insight is already here.  This resonance we’ve worked for gives the glimpse of magnetic light; in order to “get it” we have to articulate, to view from multiple angles, to gain perspective.  Rilke** likens this to circling round the ancient tower, at least his poem helps me fancy a way to take a next step from sensing resonance (no mean task in itself) to personal enactment and that probably means also social identity, in other words: peace and justice.

* Google Books has a record of Alaeddin and the Enchanted Lamp 1887 that tells of Galland’s hearing the story of the “Two Sisters who Envied their Younger Sister” [the basis for McCaleb’s “Golden Water”] (May 29, 1709) as recorded in Galland’s diary and “The Enchanted Horse”(May 22, 1709) from “a Maronite scholar by name of Youhenna Diab, who had been brought from Aleppo to Paris by Paul Lucas, the celebrated traveler and with whom he evidently at once broached the question of the Nights, probably complaining to him of the difficulty (or rather impossibility) of obtaining a perfect copy of the work; whereupon Hanna (as he always calls him) appears to have volunteered to help him to fill the lacune by furnishing him with suitable Oriental stories for translation in the same style as those already rendered by him and then and there (says Galland) ‘told me some very fine Arabian tales, which he promised to put into writing for me.’”  p. xiii-xix
Hanna did not write out the two noted but Galland “composed the five remaining tales contained in his eleventh and twelfth volumes (i.e. Ali Baba, Ali Cogia, The Enchanted Horse, Prince Ahmed and Pari Banou and the Two Sisters who envied their (p. xxi) younger Sister,) upon the details therof taken down from Hanna’s lips and by the aid of copious summaries made at the time.” xxii

“The genius of the Nights and the secret of their appeal lie in their reconciliation of opposites.  Whether they are fables, fairy tales, romances, or comic as well as historical anecdotes, they interweave the unusual, the extraordinary, the marvelous, and the supernatural into the fabric of everyday life, in which both the usual incidents and the extraordinary coincidences are but the warp and weft of divine Providence, a fabric in which the sacred and profane meet.  Their meeting place is in the details—the unabashed, straightforward, matter-of-fact details that secure the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief and open the way to a mysterious yet immediate world of wonder and wish fulfillment.” p. xvi (Husain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights II, Norton, 1995).

**  “I live my life in growing orbits. . .” p. 13 in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translation by Robert Bly.