Tag Archives: teaching

Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion

 

The paint doesn't know why it's peeling, nor does it seem to care.

The paint doesn’t know why it’s peeling, nor does it seem to care.

My students are trying to figure out what’s real.

I challenged my class of high school writers, as part of our study of argument, to define the word “real.” After a couple days of discussion, we came up with a tentative definition: something is real if it can be seen or touched or proved to be present.

So, physical material is real. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to hit against my head, it’s real. But ideas, which can’t been seen, are not real.

Someone said that the desk she was sitting at seemed real. I said, the materials are real, but the idea of that object being a “desk” is just an idea. My dog, which can’t understand language as we do, still goes around objects rather than through them, but he doesn’t know what an object is named or how it can be used.

One student asked, if I have an idea to make a desk, and then I make a desk, how did that thought become real? Two things, I said: 1. How ideas in the mind cross over to the body, nobody can yet explain, but 2., what she built was still not a “desk” — it’s a new arrangement of physical things.

Another student asked whether atoms were real. We defined atoms as particles that make up all objects. They are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We discussed the parts of this definition, including that the size of an atom is to an orange as an orange is to planet Earth. (An idea contained in this video. See also this post.) But such an explanation requires us to use our imaginations, which is a turn away from the physical world itself. We also discussed what a proton is, and how it’s got “positive charge,” and how this charge is a “fundamental property,” which is another way of saying, scientists can’t yet explain how or where this charge arises. 

And so, atoms are not real things that can be seen or touched. Atoms, rather, are explanatory ideas, and ideas are not real. Atoms are part of a scientific story, an interpretation, of how the world works. Physical matter itself doesn’t need to understand itself. Things don’t think. Only people think, and what we think are ideas, and ideas are not physical things.

Now, it can be useful to have science ideas about the world. If we want to alter the physical world — say, to build a house from wood or undergo surgery to fix a disease — it’d be nice to have the most useful ideas possible about how the house-building or body-repairing should go. Where early doctors would prescribe bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses, modern doctors don’t. We like modern medicine because its ideas seem more successful at getting cures.

But, of course, modern medicine isn’t perfect. Much remains to be explained, to be mentally modeled. I suggested that there could be fictional ideas (which we don’t care if they are realistic), like how Greek mythology says Zeus turned into a bull, and nonfictional ideas (which we’d like to be as realistic as possible), like scientific interpretations, that atoms have parts called protons, electrons, and neutrons. And the nonfiction ideas are never perfect, are never worthy of being called “The Truth,” because they must remain open to revision, as new ideas are learned. The story of science remains imperfect.

 

So, why do we care about science? Our ancestors got by without it. The fact that we’re here means our ancestors knew enough to survive in the world (get food, form shelter, make babies, raise ‘em). However, science ideas are now taught in school because it’s important for citizens now to know these so as to be able to “join society,” as one student said. And we’d like the people we trust to do physical things — like engineers and doctors — to agree amongst themselves as to the best ideas for doing things. I don’t want the person designing the bridges I drive on to choose a different idea for gravity than what’s commonly accepted (unless his ideas are shows, through argument and evidence, to be better, the way science is supposed to proceed). 

So even though what schools teach are just imperfect stories, mere ideas, and not reality itself [ I wonder what a school that didn’t teach ideas would look like], these imperfect ideas are what we have to tie each other together into a society. If each individual had his/her own ideas about what’s real, that might be chaotic, a student said.

So we take part in civil, communal society by sharing some ideas about the best ways to think about physical reality.  And yet, of course, we shouldn’t take these ideas too seriously. I think it’s useful to form an idea about ideas. I told students that the reason we’re talking about ideas and reality is that it can be useful for them to have a theory of knowledge, and to question how it is that ideas are accepted or revised. When one student said he’d question his other teachers about how things are known in those classes, I said he could, but to remember that when Socrates asked too many questions, he got killed. Sometimes, people who like to believe that their ideas are real don’t like to have their ideas questioned.

Some students said it got them upset to think about these things, to ask these questions, to think of reality this way. I said I wasn’t trying to upset them, but that I like to think that ideas aren’t real because then it lets me think of new ideas. I also said, maybe it’s helpful to think that ideas aren’t real — real physical things themselves don’t give us ideas for how to change the things. Only ideas can direct us to change the physical things — change comes from the unreal.

A student asked if students’ grades merely tell how well they learn the unreal stories.  Yeah, I said. And I said that that’s why I like having discussions, so I can provoke students to ask these questions. Another student asked at the end of class yesterday: so schools brainwash us? And I said, well, kinda, but I’m having this discussion to help you unbrainwash yourself — unless that’s just a different kind of brainwash!

 

‘If you don’t start pretending to learn, I’m gonna start trying to teach’

By the end of the school week, my patience wears thin. I’m not proud to admit this, but last Friday I threatened a student with my pedagogy.

The normally bright student said she didn’t know how to answer a grammar question that we had studied just a few weeks ago. I said, “If you don’t start pretending to learn, I’m gonna start trying to teach.” (I don’t quote myself very often, but after I heard myself say these words, I thought they were worth writing down.)

After a few more minutes of the punctuation worksheet, she begged for mercy: “You don’t have to pretend to teach anymore because I just learned something,” she said.

P.S. When I used the word “pedagogue” in class the other day, this same sophomore student thought it cute that I was suddenly talking about a “pet goat.”

Links on education: Gates Foundation, tenure lawsuit, Ravitch on Common Core

1. The powerful influence of Gates Foundation on education policy.

2. One school shooting a week: a list.

3. Laptops in classrooms can interfere with learning.

4. In Vergara v. California lawsuit, a ruling that tenure may be discriminatory against students in the worst schools. More here. The judge’s decision may be based on a guesswork statistic. Such a move may not improve education, at least not as much as reducing segregation would.

5. Cheating as a form of learning.

6. A thorough criticism of Common Core by Diane Ravitch. Some highlights:

I was not aware of this: that the union of which I am a member took money from Gates Foundation (see #1 above) to promote Common Core:

Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.

“Value-Added Measurement” of teachers is not legitimate:

the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable.

Ravitch summarizes that “there is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms,” and she writes that she advised policymakers to test out the Common Core standards before issuing them nationally.

[I]t is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanual, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three-five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.

National standards maybe aren’t all that important internationally, at least not as much as poverty lowers U.S. scores:

Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us? The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.

I really enjoyed where Ravitch advocates teachers bringing their passions to the classroom and students experiencing joy in learning:

I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. … A study by Tom Loveless of Brookings … point[s] out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.

I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.

[A] belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.

Frankly, I don’t understand why [people would] oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.

The Common Core as a religion

Time for a metaphor: I’m wondering if the Common Core education standards are the foundational text of a new religion.

(Regarding the relevance of metaphor within the Common Core, here’s “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2d: Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic,” and if any topic needs its complexity managed, it’s the Common Core. And of course, I should mention here that, in using a metaphor, I’m also acknowledging that the things compared are both alike and not-alike.)

After reading this article about how the Common Core allows for “extra support” for learning-disabled children but still requires all students at a grade level to read the same literature passages (no matter what the students’ assessed reading levels are), I started thinking about how the Common Core prescribes that humans do certain things, no so differently from how the Bible prescribes certain activities.

Now, the imperative “you shall not murder” is a lot catchier, not to mention more obviously important, than the command to “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.8 Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses),” but then the former was written by those inspired by God, and the latter is written by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.

But just as the Bible says “you shall have no other gods before me” and this helps the faithful get into Heaven, we teachers likewise shall not have any standards other than those of the Common Core — “With students, parents and teachers all on the same page and working together for shared goals” — and by doing so, “we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from school prepared to succeed in college and in a modern workforce.” The educational afterlife of college and workforce success thus achieved, there shall be ushered in (in the “forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity [that] have adopted the Common Core State Standards”) a new era of prosperity and global hegemony unlike that ever seen before upon this earth. (Woe be unto those five states that have “yet” to adopt the Common Core as their path to such success.)

My facetious tone toward the Common Core is intended, but I mean no disrespect to adherents to the Bible. But the metaphor I’m proposing here is that the Common Core is a statement of values as surely as is any religious belief system. And like any statement of values, there’s a utopian vision at the end. If only the values are followed, success shall be “ensure[d].”

And of course, these value systems call for measures that exceed realistic expectations (as in the case of learning-disabled students mentioned above, but also for most students — the standards for high-school students ask them to do things that I don’t recall being asked to do until well into college). Any set of standards that did not promise universal salvation would not be something that a mob could get enthusiastically behind. Saying “it would be nice if everyone could ‘use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution)‘” does not rhetorically inspire the confidence that “the Common Core State Standards are the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education” [emphasis mine] does .

The Common Core is a set of values of what’s best for students to learn, and of course, there’s nothing logically necessary about values. All values choices are arbitrary. Certainly some values are more efficient or effective than others, but values are values. What is used to justify the Common Core’s set of values? Apparently, the same justification used for mob rule and banning books  —  popularity and community standards: “Teachers, parents and community leaders have all weighed in to help create the Common Core State Standards.” (It’s easy to skip over the introduction to the standards, but that’s where these projects justify themselves, and this justification is pretty slippery, no? Who were these generically identified teachers, parents, and community leaders? How much “weight” was granted to these affected parties’ concerns, anyway? We don’t know; what we do know is that the credited “authors” are themselves identified only as “National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers,” a title intimidatingly long enough to stymie any but the most dedicated researchers. Is this committee of “officers” all that different, in process and ambition, from this decision-making process? Any such process of deciding what has value is a nebulous process — but once these values are specified in the specific, esoteric terms in which the Common Core standards are written, any uncertainty has been washed away, and these standards seem to be the only things that have value.)

It’s not just that I disagree with the values; any values I would substitute for the Common Core’s would be equally arbitrary. The problem is when these arbitrary Common Core standards are asserted as being non-arbitrary, as being applicable to all students, as being valid standards against which to judge students, teachers, and schools. I’m concerned that the Common Core standards are simply unrealistic, and that these unattainable standards will then be used to declare teachers to be failing, as judged by these forthcoming debacles of tests, and then “failing” educators will be forced to make more arbitrary changes.

I can accept that the Common Core does exist as a statement of values, a set of beliefs, just as I can acknowledge that there are many different religious beliefs in the world. But I don’t personally believe in most of these religions, and I don’t believe in the Common Core as a salvation (or even as a good idea, really).

Limits of simple stories: Real Lennie didn’t get shot in the head

“Of Mice and Men” may be a strong story, but it’s got very little to do with the world that we live in.

I’m teaching the Steinbeck novel to my high school sophomores this semester, and I was not looking forward to it. I read the book for the first time a couple years ago, and I thought it was a rich novel, with compelling characters, powerful scenes, and symbolism a-plenty. It’s the kind of dramatic narrative that feels sublimely moving, like a Shakespeare tragedy.

But as I started reading “Of Mice and Men” for the second time a few days ago, with the knowledge of how the book ends, I felt like the foreshadowing was heavy handed. In the first few pages. George talks about how Lennie just got them in trouble for how he treated a woman, and how he always seems to kill the mice he picks up to pet. And then they get to the farm and meet the flirtatious “Curley’s wife,” and some of the ranch hands talk about shooting a dog that “ain’t no good to himself” and that by shooting the dog “right back of the head,” “he wouldn’t feel nothing.” We get it, John Steinbeck: Lennie’s gonna die. As Key and Peele recently said, “Steinbeck, y’all!”

Fate closes in — the story funnels Lennie to slaughter like cattle in a chute on the kill-floor. (To add one more Lennie-as-animal metaphor to the “bear” and “terrier” Steinbeck uses in just the first few pages.) This is a grim world Steinbeck shows us. Life is hard, life is harsh, life is unfair, and then you die.

I just don’t accept that worldview. The experience of being alive can be harsh, but being alive can also be fun, glorious, and beautiful, and sometimes hard experiences arrive right after fun ones, and vice versa.

But certainly our world is not as tidy as a story. I spent years wishing that my life were more like a story, had more “perfect moments,” etc. It took me years to accept the idea that the way stories unfold is seldom the way life unfolds.

Even in Steinbeck’s story, life wasn’t so tidy, if this anecdote is accurate:

Steinbeck explained the origins of the story in an interview with The New York Times in 1937: “I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times. I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.”

So the real-life Lennie wasn’t shot in the head by his friend-protector. But the logic of the story requires Lennie’s death. Comedies end with marriages, and tragedies end with deaths, I heard someplace. If the story-Lennie doesn’t die, we audience members might feel shortchanged, somehow, which is weird, because having that feeling seems to make us audience members akin to the crowds who would demand to see a gladiator put to death. Perhaps readers know the tragedy story-form well enough that we want to see it fulfilled — we want “Of Mice and Men” to follow the familiar pattern, and we might feel mildly annoyed if it doesn’t. We would be deprived of the catharsis we began to expect as we read from the beginning of “Of Mice and Men.” If story-Lennie doesn’t die, then the story hasn’t been properly framed, and needs to be retold differently.

And if story-Lennie doesn’t die, there’s no divine justice, there’s no sense of a world purified by a death, each beginning matched to an ending, amen. I’m not trying to be facetious by using “amen” there: I get a feeling that John Steinbeck (there seems no evidence to separate the narrator from the author in this novel) tells this story as if he were the Creator, the dispenser of fates to characters that aren’t fully real but are symbols themselves. It is only Steinbeck’s voice and vision that is carried out in the story — this can be seen by juxtaposing the current text of “Of Mice and Men” against a version of the text that would, say, have an unreliable narrator. If there were narrative “tricks” (for lack of a better term) such as that, the spell cast by the story of “Of Mice and Men” would be broken.

I want to suggest here that “Of Mice and Men” pleases readers in that it delivers a story that is, in a sense, a fable, a myth, or a dream: the plot is simple, the characters are more like one-note strawmen than fully conscious humans, the text repeats (the foreshadowing mentioned above prophesies and echoes the later action) in an almost incantatory way, and the theme or message is made as plain and obvious as that of a parable.

But what wraps all these elements together is an authorial voice that is strong, swift, and sure. There is no unreliability in this narrator: if we’re told “Slim’s opinions were law,” then we are to understand Slim’s opinions were law (of course there’s the possibility that the entire narration is done by a character who had a worldview that allowed for no nuance or possibility, but that would render the entire book as partial, biased, and thus, moot). The narrator is in charge here, and maybe it’s not an accident that this is the same sort of narration as conveys some of the stories in the Old Testament of the Bible.

And perhaps what readers of “Of Mice and Men” — itself a title that could fit one of Aesop’s Fables — appreciate about the story is what we also appreciate about Bible stories, and even dreams: that we listeners can surrender responsibility for a time to the storyteller. Perhaps even we adults enjoy, for the duration of the story, feeling like the world is simple and knowable and that there is a single correct way to understand life and reality, and that there are good and bad things in the world, and we can be told what these are, and then we will know them.

Being told a simple, rich, resonant story maybe takes us back to a childlike mentality where we could trust absolutely the parents and grandparents who told us or read us these stories. These simple stories can soothe, can ease — we just can accept and not have to think too much. Like many people, my wife reads genre fiction as a way to relax in the evenings, and she has said she wants to read stories that are not too similar to real life (she prefers supernatural and historical romances). She has said that she has to spend all day at work confronting complicated realities, and so she wants some relief from that in the form of tidy fiction.

I don’t mean to be too hard here on genre fiction or Biblical stories or fables, etc. I’m not saying we should never read these. However, I’m not sure that these stories are of very much use to us. Maybe we need to take these simple stories and shelve them and not expect them to tell us anything about the world in which we live.

The world in which we live seems a complicated place, where there are definitely many voices, many points of view, from which come a lot of testimony and opinions about what did or didn’t happen, what is or is not good/healthy/optimal, etc, a lot of text that we audience members need to evaluate. This is a good thing, I think. A recent Slate article praised some Life magazines from 1945, but the writer noted that

“The magazine could get away with a universal we that no magazine would dare today. (This is not to say we has vanished from journalism. But what persists is an ideological we, a we of the left or right that’s opposed to a wrong-thinking them—not a we that includes all Americans.)”

Likewise, the voice in which Steinbeck narrates his story is not one that acknowledges that the real world is filled with people who see events and who judge events from unresolvably distinct perspectives. Acknowledging this, and allowing more diverse voices to be heard in the larger culture, has perhaps been one of the ways our modern culture has matured in recent decade. (For one example, in “Of Mice and Men,” we see how “normal” people think about Lennie, but we never get a good understanding of how Lennie sees things. In contrast, the recent novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” also features a character who has a distinct worldview, but this character does the narrating.)

Assuming a monolithic narrative tone that doesn’t even allow for the possibility of its own fallibility seems an act of hubris. Novels that have unreliable narrators or multiple narrators (such as epistolary texts) at least allow for the world to be uncertain, not fully knowable, beyond human understanding. And allowing the world to be unknowable also means that the world contains possibilities, that we have more to learn, that none of us real people are trapped in fates we cannot change (as the characters in “Of Mice and Men” seem to be).

And this isn’t just a matter of Steinbeck being from an earlier era — Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and Joyce’s “Ulysses” demonstrated the limits of perspective and the limits of traditional story structure in their use of stream of consciousness narrative technique more than a dozen years before Steinbeck published “Of Mice and Men.” Sure, Steinbeck may have held different artistic and aesthetic goals than these other writers, but Steinbeck’s texts perhaps gain resonance and accessibility to readers at a cost of pertinence to the actual lives of those readers. And there’s some irony there, in that Steinbeck’s ostensible subject was the real lives of average working people.

Steinbeck may have been more interested in creating a lovely object of art, a perfect story (a Faberge egg — exquisite, but useless), than he was in tackling the underlying questions of what and how texts mean, how they work, how reliable they are, and how weird it fundamentally is that we can use texts to communicate with other minds across great separations of time, space, identity, and even language (through translation). In other words, Steinbeck elides many of the issues involved in telling a story, and just tells his story. He can do that, but doing that doesn’t mean the issues go away. I want to say it’s OK that Steinbeck does this — I don’t want to say that every artwork is flawed if it doesn’t conform to what I think ought to be artistic and philosophical priorities. I can just think of these as two distinct kinds, two different categories — story-stories, and real-stories (or people-stories? reality-stories? I don’t have a good label yet) — and I can then teach “Of Mice and Men” while also teaching its limitations as art and text.

P.S.: Here’s another “Of Mice and Men” post I wrote a year ago but forgot about having written. Apparently even then, before I knew I’d be teaching it this year, I was skeptical of the book.

Reality’s ‘weiners’: Words point beyond words

From a notecard I wrote Weds., 27 Nove. 2013, after shopping at Woodman’s, a big grocery store in Rockford:

I was in the refrigerated food section, in an aisle with cheese to my right and O.J. to my left. I came up behind a cart where a boy was sitting in front and the gate was down and he was swinging his heels and kicking the gate below him. As I passed this cart, I saw a package labeled “weiners” in the cart behind the boy. These may have been in the yellow-red Oscar Meyer package, but what I remember seeing was “weiners.”

I thought how, of all the things I could have noticed — the other shoppers, the boy, the cheese, the O.J., I noticed “weiners” — I saw this, processed this visual as a word, read it, got the meaning, and what I got out of that moment was “weiners.”

I’m posting this because — well, I’m not sure. I’m posting this now maybe because I want a post that has “Weiners” in the title — or maybe I want to post something since I’ve been trying to write this post for over an hour now and I feel like I’m spinning my wheels — I’ve had some ideas but I feel like these wouldn’t do much for anybody but me.

I earlier wanted to claim that this moment described above was valuable because it was real — and because my mind somehow made me aware at the time of that present moment (“moment” implies that boundaries had been drawn around a specific duration or experience, and maybe my mind did that, too, at about the same time as it observed and read “weiners”). I was aware of myself having awareness — I was conscious of my conscious perception of “weiners.”

But now, in describing this experience, I’m relating an abstraction. I’m claiming that I really did have the experience described above, but of course, I could have made it up. It could be fiction. Either way, as fiction or nonfiction, the description above is a product of my mental experience, my inner voice that picks the words.

Lately, I’ve been wondering why I tend to value nonfiction more than fiction. Perhaps it’s because I read a lot of fiction as a young person, and I grew up with relatives that were good storytellers, but as I got into my later 20s, I started to question the value of the stories I’d been told. I started to sense that Jack Kerouac’s adventures may not have been as fun to experience as they were to read, and that my family’s stories may have unfairly characterized certain family members.

And from my memory: in the fall of my freshman year of college, I went on an after-dark hike on a trail through the woods, and my friends and I were talking about reading Tolkien, and I remember feeling excited to find other Tolkien fans, and somehow I had a feeling that night of the dark woods being linked with the glory of Bilbo’s adventures, and I remember later that same year that I wanted to write a story that could capture and convey, or recreate, that sense of specialness, an idea mixed with an experience (as if, perhaps, I was interpreting the experience as I was having it). And this is a story I now hold and am using here to explain and/or justify an attitude I’ve taken.

Maybe I don’t like fiction in that I feel nonfiction is fascinating enough — that I don’t need superheroes or fantastic plots in order to find things interesting. Just looking at a real thing — say, my cell phone that is on the desk before me — is pretty interesting. I mean, it is, and it isn’t. It’s not some great action movie, and yet, this is true, whereas everything in a Spiderman movie is not.

Real life is fascinating in its “there-ness” (I’m not sure if this is what Heidegger meant by “Dasein” — probably not — but it comes to mind that I should point it out). And even as I write here and now, I’m using conventions like “I” and “is” and “now” and “there” that are words — quite abstract words — referring to things (and “things” is abstract as hell too) that are obvious in one’s experience but hard to prove or convey. “I” is the word that I use as the source of words that I write — it’s the name for whatever is doing the experiencing that seems private to me (and here we go with the linguistic run-around, how we can define words only in terms of other words, and we can’t break across that idea/reality divide, so that everything that I think about reality is itself an idea, not reality.

“My phone is there in front of me”: “phone” is a label, sure, referring to some physical object; “My” and “me” again refer to this idea of “me-ness” (And Heidegger, in creating or redefining “Dasein,” is just again pointing out the frustrations of using language — defining his way out, which is not a solution.); “in” and “of” show relations; but “is” and “there” both seem to refer to, to make claims  of, reality — but reality (whatever “reality” the idea actually refers to) doesn’t make or need claims. The phone is there — duh. I can see and feel that it’s there without even forming that statement (unless Descartes’s evil genius is deceiving me — but I have no reason to doubt the proper function of my senses. I’ll take what seems real AS real).

And yet, there is some kind of unique value to claims made about real things. For instance, a claim about my phone made now will one day become a historical record, in a way that an old fiction cannot. Historians use, for instance, probate documents to tell us about the lives of past people such as Shakespeare. But then, statements about past people and things are merely ideas and not reality any longer.

So I can’t defend nonfiction texts as necessarily being any more real than a fiction text. We educated Westerners are trained to think of nonfiction texts as having evidentiary, and thus, argumentative, value that fictions don’t have, but then most of what we call education is training students to process abstractions in the same way teachers do.

But perhaps I value nonfiction — or, let’s say, writing about reality, writing about what’s really in front of me, and/or what thoughts really come to mind — as a way of simply coming to pay more open-minded attention to what is before me, near me. The language fails to reach outside of the realm language — language has no purchase on, cannot grip, physical things — but using language is a sign that I’m still alive (as Descartes said, roughly), and somehow consciousness seems the greatest mystery. Being alive is fascinating — and that to try to convey this through language fails utterly, of course, pointing me away from words, back toward living.

And now I realize I’ve written hundreds of words explaining why words fail to describe particular things, and I’ve ended up by detailing a hearty abstraction about why words fail to describe particular things. Distinctions fall apart, too.

I am writing this; I’m alive, and writing what I see and hear and think, these remind me I’m alive — something I don’t really need to be reminded of at all.

POSTSCRIPT, a day later: A couple following-up thoughts.

1. Maybe what seemed so odd about seeing the word “weiners” on the food packaging isn’t just that that particular word (of all the things I could be looking at) stood out to me, but also that once I had seen it, that word fully occupied my mind. I hadn’t been thinking of weiners at all, but once I saw that word, that word was in my mind, and I considered how I could call that noisy boy a weiner. The word occupied — or even, became — my mind, my crystalized thought (see here for another reference to thought crystals).

2. The post above seemed to end with me saying that the priority is to know you’re alive. Today, I’m not sure I’d defend that idea. I might instead say that simply being alive is the priority.

3. On the drive home from work tonight, I thought that the mentions above about “there-ness” could also be explained this way: that sometimes (and not always), I see something is near me, and I’m struck by that thing being there. Not surprised, exactly, but struck — like tonight, a particular leafless tree’s shape drew my attention, and I was struck by that tree being there. It wasn’t a weird or strange tree; it was just that tree. It was there. It seems dumb to use such simple words, but as the post above says, sometimes those are the deepest words, the hardest to understand.

Or last Wednesday, before I went to the grocery described above, I was eating at a fast-food restaurant and facing the low-angled southern light, and I noticed a glint of light, a perfect little speck of sunlight, coming to me from the slug of ketchup in a paper cup. It was striking — not that it was so beautiful (in the usual sense of aesthetic beauty), but that it was there, that I had noticed it, and maybe that the world is so intricate that there can be glints on ketchup.

Another time, I might not have noticed it. I see things all the time and treat them merely instrumentally, particularly when I have a task or goal as an overriding thought. At these times, I may see objects as things to step or drive around, and I may look to use a certain object to achieve an end (for instance, I may grab my keys to unlock a door) — and I may not be actually paying attention to these objects. I probably identify the car, person, or key at some basic level and I respond to each as is proper for me to accomplish my task.

But when my mind is not so task-occupied, or particularly when I am in a place I don’t often find myself, I may pay more attention to things that are (somehow I feel the need to write “are there,” but both “are” and “there” mean “exist”). And when I’m, say, visiting a friend whom I haven’t seen in a long time, his person, his presence, may not feel real at first [and “presence” itself is a whole weird thing, since it’s not directly sensible] — this is what people say, too, when something startling, like an accident, happens.  But eventually we accept these new things as real.

This question of whether something is real — whether my mind is really seeing what I think I’m seeing — plays a particular role in my obsessive checking of things: Is my stove off? I can touch the burners, and they feel cool, and I don’t see any flames, and the knobs point to “Off” — yet I tell myself to be careful, to not leave home until I’m sure the stove is off. Or when checking for traffic: if I see a car coming toward my left or right, OK. It’s when I don’t see a car that I feel I have to check multiply and to clear my head, make sure I’m really paying attention, etc.

P.P.S.: After writing the previous paragraphs, I read a link on The Dish tonight about research suggesting that brain stimulation can change a  viewer’s mindset “from a habitual mode of identifying objects to adopt an aesthetic perspective.”

‘So easy it is actually hard’: A student compliments my creative writing class

I gave my creative writing students (high school seniors) a “Kreativity Kwizz” a few days ago, and one of the students gave an answer that I read as one of the best compliments I could get on this class:

“I know that this class is by far the most unique, weirdest class I have ever taken, and that it is so easy it is actually hard.”

This statement shows me that my student really gets, really understands, that being creative doesn’t require doing the things that people typically think of as hard work: solving lots of math problems or memorizing facts for a test (although I do ask students to memorize a few poems). Learning creative practices requires different thinking, or even no-thinking, which are themselves  challenging. I also just love the way this student worded this idea, showing her own creativity!