Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Finished"

Yesterday I "finished" a draft of a new novel.

Finished? What does that mean—especially when I know from experience that I'm likely to do another three, four, five, maybe even fifteen drafts? And just what qualifies as a draft, anyway?

Was it Paul Valery who said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned"? Trust me, the same can be said of a novel—or a play, or a painting, or an essay. At some point we've done all we can do; at least, we feel as if we've done all we can do. And at that point we have two choices: two walks away temporarily, or to walk away for good. But we must walk away.

All that's implied by the word "draft," therefore, is that it is something you will walk away from, but only temporarily. It exists merely to be returned to. It is neither finished nor abandoned, but exists in a sort of twilight state between these two phases. You might call it the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. 

The last novel I wrote took me fifteen years. I don't mean fifteen years wall-to-wall (in that case, the "walls" would need to be padded); I mean fifteen years on and odd. Still, if I added all the hours and days together spent working on that novel during those years, I would not be surprised to discover that they would fill five to six years—with just barely enough time left over for meals and sleep.

Five to six years working full time to create a novel which, when it finally sold, earned me an advance of . . . well, I won't say exactly how much money I got. Suffice it to say that it's hardly enough to live on for a year. In fact, it's hardly enough to live on for half a year. And I don't mean in New York City; I mean somewhere like Cleveland, Ohio. Or maybe Somalia.

In few words I probably earned about .25¢ per hour. But hey—who's counting?

And yet I have to tell you that with each new revision of that work, I felt renewed: I felt as though I have been granted a new lease on life, a new chance to make good of something that I had already sacrificed so much time and effort on. This time (I said to myself at the onset of each revision), this time I'll get it right; this time my efforts will not be in vain. I shall be redeemed. 

Redemption—what does it mean? In the case of my novel, it means a contract that will pay me (once all advances are collected) 25¢ per hour plus expenses on a ten city reading tour. And the glory of seeing my words finally put to bed in print. Yes, that's the real payment: to see one's vision at last realized, one's words set to type on and printed good quality paper between well-designed covers. To be able to say to those who have witnessed your years of slogging struggle, "My book is published. It exists. It has its own life now. BUY IT!" And—most of all—to hold in one's hand the product of that struggle, all those years of effort and disappointment and tears and ages bent over a keyboard compacted into this small, dense object. A book! No longer trapped inside me as a series of worries and visions, but an independent entity, a thing with its own life. Yes, like having a child, sort of (I guess).

But for a writer one "child" is seldom enough. We are greedy that way. We want more and more progeny—as if the world isn't already overpopulated with books; as if there's weren't already ten thousands times as many books as there are those willing to read them. What, I ask you, do we need another one for? 

We don't. But some of us—like me—still need to write them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thinking on Paper

The more papers I read by my undergraduate students, the more I come away convinced of this: that their problems have less to do with the mechanics of writing (though many have problems here as well) as with the thinking that goes into a piece of writing. 

I'm not sure that a lot of my students really understand what is meant by the verb to think. That the word is a verb gives us a strong clue to set out with. Thinking is a process; it doesn't simply happen, or happen simply. It is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be, any more than lifting weights, running a marathon, or doing a valve job is meant to be easy. It takes time; it takes effort. Thinking is an active process. It is work. It requires effort.

Though they say they hate to write, what many of my students reveal to me (in writing to me about their relationship to writing) is that they resent and resist the process of thinking. They resent the necessary effort. It hurts their brains—just as lifting weights hurts other parts of the body. Anything we do to improve our minds "hurts our brains." To grow in any way is to experience—if not pain–discomfort. If it doesn't hurt, then you're not growing.

What my students have said to me very candidly in their papers—though this may not have been what they thought they were saying—is that they want to learn and grow; they want to become better at writing, as long as it doesn't hurt. In other words, as long as it requires a modest effort or, better still, no effort at all.

Sorry, folks: growth doesn't work that way, and neither does learning. If your parents didn't teach you that, then I'm sorry. But you'll learn it now. You get back what you put in.

As for thinking (and I'm talking here not about daydreaming or random thoughts or feelings, but about analytical thinking, the kind of thinking that looks into ideas, that examines and inspects them, that digs for deeper truths), it takes us beyond our perceptions, beyond common knowledge, beyond assumptions and opinions toward something deeper, toward—hopefully—ideas that we can genuinely claim as our own. Or, at the very least, thinking takes us beyond the ideas and opinions that we already have to new ideas and opinions. 

To think, one must question. When one makes a statement, when one says, for instance, "I hate writing about boring topics," one should ask oneself, on behalf of the reader but also one one's own behalf, a) what are these topics and b) what makes them boring? By way of the first answer one student of mine wrote in a paper, "boring subjects like Shakespeare" and left it at that—as if it were plain as day that Shakespeare is a boring subject—as if this were knowledge as common as the roundness of the earth. Well, maybe a majority of college undergraduates feel this way. But even that doesn't make it true (truth, by the way, is not a popularity contest).

If my students were to examine this statement, this idea, this notion that Shakespeare is boring, if he or she were to think about it, he or she might realize that root of the boredom lies not in the subject  of the sentence "Shakespeare bores me," but in its object. It is the "me" who supplies the boredom, not Shakespeare (whose plays have been amusing people for 400 years, and thus, whatever else he is, is not "boring"). What my student experiences when asked to write about Shakespeare is not boredom but mental and intellectual paralysis: he (or she) has nothing to say, or rather he is unwilling or unable to pierce the thick hide of insecurity that divides him from his own perceptions and feelings, and therefore unable to get at what lies beneath. The thing that bores him is not Shakespeare but himself as he sits there with a mind as blank as the page in front of him. To say in such an instance that Shakespeare is boring makes about as much sense as saying "the blank screen on my computer is boring me." It's not my mind that's empty—it's the computer!

Thinking hurts. But it hurts less the more we get used to doing it, and many of my younger students are not used to thinking analytically. They have managed to go through twelve years of lower education with little if any true engagement with that process. Instead they have spent their time memorizing things, learning by wrote, passing tests and getting grades. Thinking has not been a part of the curriculum. They are not used to it, and those who ask them to think are asking them to use muscles that burn with the slightest strain. In this way among others the system has failed them. 

The good news is that these muscles can be developed at any point in life. It's a simple matter of being willing to endure a modest amount of "pain" (I put the word in quotation marks, because, really, it's not even as painful as a small headache). To think is to ask a series of questions that takes us deeper and deeper into whatever subject we are looking into. If we write, "I have no time for writing," the question to ask then is: why? And then we discover, perhaps, that we have more time than we thought. Or we discover that our lives are truly such that we have no time not only for writing, but for self-examination (this is true for many if not most people).

When I say that my students don't know how to think, I hope they don't take this as an insult. It's not meant to be: it's only meant to be an observation. It is not a negative comment on their intelligence. I find most if not all of my students to be intelligent; some are witty as well; a few are wise beyond their years. But the resource of thinking has not been developed in them. They pass judgments and make statements in writing that clearly show this. They don't question themselves. They are content with having an opinion and feel no need to challenge or defend it. They want to "express themselves," which, translated, means they don't want to have to take any responsibility for their ideas or sentiments, to have to verify or back them up with any evidence or facts: indeed, they resent this requirement. "If it's my opinion it's my opinion," they say. "I don't need to defend or argue it!" No—and you can be ignorant, too; I suppose that's your right. But that ignorance won't serve you or society. It will only serve to blind you to your own blindness. It will protect you from ever realizing how ignorant you are. This is the strategy of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand to protect itself from its predators. In this case the predator is ignorance; the enemy is self-awareness; the thing most feared, paradoxically, is that one might actually learn something that might really protect one.

Students, together let us help and encourage each other to think. Let us become thinkers, and be not just better writers for it, but better people. That's my goal for you all in this class. If you learn to write, that's good; if you learn to think analytically—and better still to make a habit of thinking—that's better. That's powerful.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welcome to Interesting Times

Remember the Great Depression? The stock market crash of 1929? Ticker tape machines? Men jumping out of windows? Bathtub Gin? Giggle water? Al Capone? Neither do I; I wasn't even born. But I don't feel too bad and you shouldn't either. Because though we missed out on the Great Depression, thanks to the greedy, stupid people who run our financial empires you and I are soon to be treated to the New, Improved, Even Greater Depression.

As the Chinese curse puts it: may you live in interesting times.

Today Federal Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke pleaded his case before Congress, asking them (us) to front them—run that figure by me again?—$700 billion (I don't even know how many zeroes that is) dollars to loan to those poor nice people on Wall Street: that's right, to the very people who got us into this mess.

An analogy comes to mind. You and I are passengers in an airplane known as the US Economy (really the global economy, but let's not quibble). The pilots in charge of that economy are, or have been, the financial wizards of Wall Street. Thanks to their bumbling, the plane is in a free fall and about to crash. There are a dozen parachutes on hand., locked in a safe. Question: who should get them? The pilots who doomed the plane, or the innocent passengers who trusted them with their lives?

For parachutes read: 700 billion dollars of our taxpayer money. Going to Wall Street. To bail them out. And (excuse me) what do we get in return for this loan? Besides a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking?

Already the powers—meaning the Wall Street institutional and banking lobbies—have balked at having any "strings" attached to this loan (like being forced to cut the salaries and bonuses of executives of firms on the receiving end). You might rightly ask just how is it that they are in any position to balk at anything? Is it not said that beggars can't be choosers? And does not desperately needing $700 billion dollars qualify one as a beggar? And yet they want no strings. In fact one institution had the nerve to say, in few words, "If you force any such restrictions on us, we'll refuse the loan." To which I can think of only one appropriate response—unutterable here. Heaven forbid they should have to cut down on their fleets of BMWs and Mercedes and wear watches worth less than our cars.

Imagine you or I strutting into one of their banks and asking for a loan with nothing more to offer as collateral but a bunch of worthless mortgages on properties impossible to sell. They'd laugh—or call security.

But they don't just want our money; they want it no strings attached.

And they'll likely get it. Remember, this is Congress we're talking about, Congress that's being solicited, and by institutions represented by powerful lobbies: by the very people who fund the campaigns of Congressmen. The fix is in: the strings are attached and the beggars are pulling them.

What will make this depression greater than the Great Depression? Aside from the very real possibility that it will be deeper, longer, and spread across the entire globe? That it was so predictable, and so preventable. Anyone with eyes to see who had been looking could have seen it coming long ago. Those who were saying, less than three weeks ago, "The situation is contained; the worst is over," knew better; they had to know better. I'm talking President Bush; I'm talking Bernanke; I'm talking all the talking heads of Wall Street. A moron could have told them otherwise, that when you build a financial empire on bad mortgages, and then sell those bad mortgages to other banks and institutions, and they sell them to portfolio managers, and so on, you are building your empire on sand and it will collapse. Once the first wave hit, they had to know it was the end, that the whole house of cards would tumble down. They knew it, and said and did nothing. Because they figured in the end only those at the very bottom would lose theirs. It's called a Pyramid Scheme. Or, on Wall Street, business as usual.

If this $700 billion loan goes through, every taxpayer in America will have entered into that pyramid scheme at the very bottom. We will be left holding the bag for all the greedy dumb sons of bitches who filled the bag with bad debt. The French are laughing at us; so are the Germans. They say they told us so. They 're right; they did.

I am reminded of a passage in a book by a favorite author of mine. His name is Nelson Algren, and the book is called A Walk on the Wild Side. In it Algren writes of that other depression, one that we may soon look back upon with wistful eyes (like trains and movie stars, depressions were so much better back then!). Here's Algren on that Depression:

The Ladder of Success had been inverted; the top was the bottom, and the bottom was the top. Leaders of men still sporting gold watches were lugging baby photographs door to door with their soles flapping. Physicians were out selling skin lighteners and ship captains queued in hope of a cabin boy's mop and pail.

Offices of great fire insurance companies went up in smoke, which seemed no more than just. When the fire department—long unpaid—cleared off, little remained but scorched files, swivel-chairs on which no one would ever swivel again, lovely heaps of frosted glass, and all that mahogany.

All that mahogany that hadn't helped anybody but brokers after all. Then the brokers began jumping off rooftops with no greater consideration for those passing below than they'd had when their luck was running. Emperors of industry snatched all the loose cash on which they could lay hand and made on fast last run. Lawyers sued one another just to keep in practice.

The more things change . . .

Back then, at least, the brokers and bankers had the decency to jump. Now they run screaming to Uncle Sam for $$$. Instead of snatching loose cash they snatch the taxpayer's purse.

Welcome to Interesting Times.

Friday, September 19, 2008

David Foster Wallace—R.I.P.

Like everyone else, I was shocked to learn of David Foster Wallace's suicide last Friday, and of the unendurably long winter of depression that preceded it. Up to the moment when I heard the news on the radio Wallace had been, for me, a writer of annoyingly enviable success, the sort of prodigious talent that makes you—or anyway made me—despair of ever being worthy enough to tie his tennis sneakers.

Like Moby Dick and Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Wallace's thousand-plus page tour-de-force doorstopper of a novel, belongs securely to the short lost of paradoxical masterpieces brilliant and (all but) unreadable—but then one doesn't have to read it to know it's brilliant: you can feel the energy pouring out of its heaped dense pages; you can heft its brilliance; you can weigh its ambition. Books like Infinite Jest seemed designed to make pip-squeak writers like me want to kill ourselves. So it seemed monstrously absurd to me that this man, five years my junior and far more successful by any measure than I, had gone into the basement of his Claremont, California home and hanged himself.

Wallace suffered from deep chronic depression, and had suffered from it much of his life. I hadn't known this. But a closer reading of his work should have given me a very strong clue. Loneliness and sadness had been strong, steady themes in his work, and in retrospect the gargantuan energy that powers his prose can be viewed as the antithetical manic outpouring of a soul steeped in the entropy and inertia of chronic malaise. For every action an equal and opposite reaction. It stands to reason—again, with hindsight—that a man whose work brims with brio, bravado, and brilliance had an opposite dark side. Scratch a comedian and find Hamlet.

As with many writers, for Wallace writing was a means of both confronting and heading off existential dread, of quelling the loneliness he experienced so deep down in his bones. To write is to connect—with a presumed audience of readers, of course, but also, in the act of writing, with one's own soul. Asked what was uniquely magical about fiction, Wallace responded, "Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don't know what you're thinking or what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. But that's just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that's set up through art by the writer. There's another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There's a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that's very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I'm sitting in a chair. There's real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn't make me feel less lonely."

What Wallace says here about fiction is, I think, true of any kind of writing that deserves to be called "creative": that it bridges the boundaries that separate and distinguish us as human beings, those false walls that say, "You are you, and I am I, and never the twain shall meet." At bottom, though, we suffer the same needs and longings and dreads—and this is why we read (and write) fiction: to learn that we are not so unique, not so isolated, not so alone as we might think. But anyone who has read the essays of Montaigne, Camus, or Natalia Ginzberg, or the poetry of Philip Larkin or Robert Frost, knows that, when it comes to dispersing solitude, in the world of letters fiction owns no monopoly.

Which isn't to say that writing cures loneliness or depression. Obviously, for Wallace, as a cure it finally failed—at least in the long run—though one may argue that, were it not for the act of writing, we'd not have had the pleasure of his company for as long as we did, and that what finally did him in was the inability to write because of his depression (one can't help thinking of Van Gogh).

But though it may not cure loneliness, writing can certainly assuage and mitigate it. Even as it immerses us in our awareness of the human condition, it also tells us that this is a condition that we all, at bottom, share.

As Saul Bellow once put it (succinctly if rather naughtily): "The uncontemplated life may not be worth living, but the contemplated life makes you want to kill yourself." Which is to say that the more alive we are, the more we suffer. But then—if you are not alive to begin with—there is no "self" to kill.

A preemptive suicide of the soul may be one solution to the "problem" of existence, but it's a poor solution, and an ignoble one. Clearly it wasn't David Foster Wallace's solution. Tragic though his end was, the pitched battle Wallace launched in writing against the teamed demons of sadness and solitude is now and will forever be cause for celebration.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Armadillo Syndrome

If there's one thing I can't accuse my students of, it's dishonesty. They are, to say the least, candid—refreshingly so—in part because I've asked them to be. And because I've assured them that in my classroom their honesty will never be held against them. I meant it. 

But as refreshing as candor can be, it can also be downright disturbing. Like today, when one of my students said what pretty much amounts to this: that she has no real interest in the class, that she's strictly there because it's required, that she thinks it's a waste of her time—especially given that she's already a good writer.

That's candid. And it's scary. And depressing--to me, at least, since it's my job to teach this person something. And basically I've just been told, Fuggedaboudit.

The arms may or may not be crossed, but the mental posture is entirely one of defiance. The expression on the face says, I dare you to teach me anything. What impresses me most about this stance is that it will probably take this student as much or more energy to resist learning anything from me as it might take for her to learn something. 

Or, put another way: it will take as much or more energy to sit there wasting an hour and a quarter of both of our lives as it would take NOT to waste the same amount of time.

I'm reminded of two things: first of an armadillo, which when threatened from without curls up into a stone-like ball. 

Second, I'm reminded of a neighbor who lives in my building. Call him Hank. Until he retired a few years ago, Hank was a fireman. A lovely guy, and very intelligent. But when it comes to art, Hank's favorite line is, "I don't know nothin' about art." Every time we met, he finds some reason to say it, probably because he knows I write and paint.

Whenever he says it to me I say to Hank, "What do you want to know."

"I don't know," says Hank. "But I don't know nothin' about art."

"But I do know something," I say. "If you ask me a question, I'll gladly try and answer it."

Hanks shakes his head. "I just don't know nothin' about art and that's all there is too it."

Mind you, were this a conversation about filing income taxes or about gall stones or car repair, and were I not an artist but an accountant, a doctor, or a mechanic, odds are (I'd bet) that Hank would not be so predisposed against learning something from me. But I am an artist, and therefore an enigma: on this Hank absolutely insists. No amount of persuading on my part can convince him otherwise. Art is something that normal guys like Hank don't understand. And furthermore it cannot be understood by normal guys like Hank. Period. 

Why (I ask myself) do I consider Hank's posture with regard to art a personal threat—one that makes me want to curl up like an armadillo?

Because I well know that people are mistrustful of things that they do not understand, and furthermore that what they find incomprehensible they tend to either hold in awe or in contempt, or to ignore completely. And when it comes to art, many people are contemptuous. Which means they don't trust artists. Which means they don't buy their paintings or read their novels. They don't like artists. Which means they don't like me.

As a person who likes to be liked, yes, I find that threatening. Which is why whenever I see him I offer to demystify Hank.

But Hank won't hear of it. Hank insists on remaining mystified. He crosses his arms. He curls up like an armadillo. He doesn't even dare me to teach him; he defies me. He is as invested in his ignorance as the armadillo is invested in its plated shell. But unlike the armadillo's shell, his ignorance can't protect him from anything but knowledge.

What is true of Hank is, I'm afraid, true of some of my students.

What can I do? How can I convince these students to cast off their armadillo shells, that there's no danger in learning; and that furthermore their time is better spent being curious and open than being incurious and close-minded? That their willingness to learn will make the world a better place to live in not just for them, but for others, too? 

Imagine a world where no one is curious or open to knew knowledge? Now imagine on where everyone is eager and willing to learn. Which world would you rather live in?

If you answered, "A: the one where no one's curious" I hope you're being facetious.

If not I'll make a deal with you: I'll give you a D+, you'll technically pass the class, and you don't ever have to come to class again. 

And I don't have to waste my time NOT teaching you a damned thing.

The irony of course is that if you're reading this blog you're almost certainly NOT the kind of student I'm writing about here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

To See Again

"I can't fix a blank page," bestselling author Nora Roberts has famously said, providing me with the best if not the only excuse I can imagine for those often frightening documents called "first drafts." In Bird By Bird, her inspirational guide for writers, Anne Lamott sanctions "shitty first drafts" as a crucial first step in the process of creating—if not a masterpiece, at least a readable piece of writing.

Beginning writers fear and loathe revision. Having written something once, they see no need to write it again. When it comes to revision, the philosophy of most undergraduates seems to run along the lines of, "Make me write an essay once, shame on you; get me to write it twice, shame on me." Which explains why, when most students "revise" their work, they do so tentatively, changing a word here, a comma there, taking into account specific notes made by their teacher, and doing little more. To my mind the result hardly qualifies as a revision.

It's hard for me to relate, since of all parts of writing I love revising most. That's when I get to see my work come to life, and even, at times, shine. It's putting the polish on, or—short of that —getting the thing to work. Because I'm result oriented, I want a finished product. Rough drafts are for me just an end to that means. Until they've gone through the revision process, I feel about them as one feels about an unglazed ceramic or an unbaked cake. Of first drafts Hemingway said, "They are excrement" (in fact I think he used the four-letter equivalent of that word). But with this difference: you can't shine excrement. You can polish a first draft.

As I said to one of my classes, some of my published stories went through fifteen and even twenty drafts, over periods of years, before seeing print. But when they did get published they were published well. Those are the stories I'm proudest of. Did it bug me to have to do so many revisions? Well, no, not really. Because in writing each of those fifteen to twenty revisions I wasn't just retyping; I really was re-envisioning: seeing again. It was as if each time I sat down to work on the story again I had a whole new idea about it. Each time I believe that this would be the final draft, the one that would lead to triumph in the form of publication. That my belief turned out to be wrong mattered little once I sat down to revise again: for with each revision a new hope flourished. I drew my inspiration not from past failures, but from the possibility of success that always seemed to there waiting for me. Just one more draft, my muse whispered. Just one more. This will be it! ...

For many of my students, the idea of writing two or three drafts--let alone fifteen--seems absurd enough. But it only seems absurd if you approach it with the wrong attitude, which is that you're writing the same work over again. Zen philosophy tells us that we can never enter the same river twice. And the same is true for a story or an essay or even a book: each time we revise, we enter a different story, essay, or book. Between the time we completed the last draft and the time we set out to do the next, we've changed; the world has changed. We're not the same people we were yesterday, let alone two weeks ago. It's not just our words that we're revising when we revise, but our vision, our understanding.

This is why, when revising, I always tell students, Begin with a blank document; re-keyboard from scratch. When I tell them this my students think I'm nuts. You mean do all that typing over again? Yes, do all that "typing" over again. But compared to thinking, typing takes very little energy. And what matters is that you really reconsider every thought/sentence as you revise. If you're inserting changes, you're not revising; you're just editing. There's a difference. To revise is to see again; to see fresh, to reevaluate. 

For me, that chance to see again is also a chance to get things write; to make something strong if not perfect. To create something I can be proud of, and that may even last.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Opinion

In one of my classes yesterday we were discussing the "cheating" essays. I tried to generalize about their weakness (a mistake, probably, since whenever we generalize we almost always do so in error). Still, with no time to deal with 30 essays on an individual basis, I felt the need to make at least some general points. And one of these points had to do with insubstantial sentences: in other words, with sentences that, though they may sound perfectly innocent, say nothing, or say things that are entirely obvious—which, for me, amounts to the same thing.

Well, it didn't take long for me to get into trouble. I  gave what I thought was a good example of an "obvious" sentence (I won't quote it verbatim, for fear of singling out any student or his/her work), one that read something like, "These days, most people try to accomplish as much as they can." No sooner did I do so than a flurry of hands went up.

"I didn't think it was obvious!"

"Neither did I."

"Really?" I said. "What's not obvious about it?"

"They're just stating their opinion," said one student.

"Yeah," said another. "What's wrong with that."

"Nothing," I said. "If the opinion isn't obvious."

"It's not obvious!"

"Again I ask you—what isn't obvious about it?"

We went back and forth like this for a while. Clearly, the argument would not be settled this way. At last I said, "Maybe the sentence isn't obvious, but it's not exactly gripping, is it?"

"That's just your opinion!" said a student.

Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go. Just my opinion. True, very true. But then if a teacher's opinion doesn't count for more than his or her students', then what's the point of having a teacher? I said, "Yes, it's my opinion. But not all opinions are created equal. Some have more authority than others. Some are based on more experience than others."

"But there's all kinds of books and things being written out there by all kinds of people with all kinds of different opinions," said the same student. "Who's to say that one opinion is better than any other?"

We call this relativism: that notion that all things, including ideas and opinions, are equal or should be treated as such. Hence, Beethhoven's Fifth Symphony is no better than a  song by Barry Manilow. And a meal at The Four Season's or Lutece is no better than one from a McDonald's drive-thru window. And a three year-old's crayon scrawl is no less worthy of our admiration and respect than the Sistine Chapel.

But even if we aren't relativists, still, how do we know—how can we be sure—that one opinion is more authoritative than another? Answer: by the skill of the argument[s] used to defend it. This is why, when you (my students) write your papers, I ask you to defend your claims—those that beg defending— with examples, illustrations, statistics, and other kinds of evidence.

Can I prove that the sentence, "These days, most people try to accomplish as much as they can" is a dull, obvious, empty sentence? Can I argue my opinion? I think so. Let's take one part of the sentence at a time. First, "These days"—meaning when, exactly? Today? All right: today. "Most people"—since most is vague we can reduce that to "people." "Try to accomplish." In other words, they "do." "As much as they can"—meaning "what they can." So, distilled, the sentence reads, "Today people do what they can." Since "today" is implied we can reduce that further to, "People do what they can." Note that nothing crucial has been lost from the initial sentence; the information conveyed is identical. 

Now is it obvious? Supposing we turn the thought on its head. "Some people don't try to do [as much as] they can." Well, some people don't, I guess. But that is certainly obvious. And if it's obvious that some people don't do as much as they can, must it not therefore be equally obvious that the rest do do as much as they can? I think so.

Were I to make this argument in class, I would be perceived (rightly, I think) as an intellectual bully. After all, one of my main goals in these classes is to get my students to feel comfortable so they'll take part in discussions and ask questions. If I back them into dialectical corners, if I harangue them with arguments, how will that help me achieve my goal? 

It won't.

In exchange for a lively classroom I'll gladly accept a little relativism. Far as I'm concerned, it's a fair trade.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Asking Questions

It comes up (usually because I bring it up) at every new Montclair class, the question of questions, namely: why don't my students ask more questions?

Today, though, I was grateful to get some honest answers. We don't want to be wrong. We don't want people to think we're stupid. We don't want to stick our necks out.

Fair enough. I thought those might be the answers. My question to myself: how do I create an atmosphere in the classroom where it's safe to ask as many questions as often as you like? How do I convince you, dear students, that the only foolish question is the one you don't ask? How do I assure you that in asking question you won't be seen as dumb; on the contrary, others will be grateful. In fact one person in that classroom, I guarantee you, who'll be most the grateful of all. Me.

Why? Because teaching a class where no one ever asks questions is about as much fun and as easy as having to eat a box of light bulbs (without salt). Because teaching to a room full of Easter Island Statues makes me want to run screaming out of the classroom. And after a few weeks of doing it I'll be ready to go home and mix myself a nice, tall drink of arsenic, with a cyanide chaser.

Because when no one asks questions, I can't tell if anything I'm saying makes any sense at all. I can't even tell if my students are listening, or if they're awake, or if they have heartbeats and pulses. For all I know, they are text messaging love letters under their notebooks (well, at least they're writing).

The thing is, I don't really want to teach a whole class every day. Ideally, I'd like to teach about 1/4 or maybe 1/3 of a class--and let you (my students) teach the rest—by asking questions, by talking, by sharing ideas and experiences.

Otherwise, guess what?

You're stuck with me and my ideas.

And so am I.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On Cheating

So—I've given my ENWR100 students their first assignment: an essay on Cheating. Yes, cheating: those little (and sometimes not so little) things we all do from time to time to give ourselves an unearned advantage over others. In class we discussed cheating mostly as applied to school— to cheating on tests and exams and to plagiarism, "borrowing" another person's words and using them as your own without attribution. 

Now go home and write a short essay on cheating, I said. Take a position. Argue the position with yourself using the supplied texts as reference points (I had given them two essays by others on the subject). Keep and open mind and be prepared to have your views shift as you explore and write. 

Later that day, as always happens soon after I assign an essay topic, I had a minor panic attack. It happened as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, on the lower level (I always use the Lower Level; on average the Upper Level, which allows trucks, takes five minutes longer). To myself I said: how would I write this essay? Could I write it? What would I say?

I did what I always do when I start an essay: I free-associate. I considered the word "cheating," not just it's literal meaning (though it helps to know that, too: cheat, vt [from eschete, fr. reversion of property,  escheoir, to fall, devolve] 1: the act of fraudulently deceiving: DECEPTION, FRAUD . . . 2: to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud 3: to influence or lead by deceit 1b: to violate rules dishonestly [as at cards] . . . ) but its connotations, the things I associate with cheating. 

I thought of games, of playing. "You cheated!" The checker piece moved as the other player's eyes are turned, the card dealt from the bottom of the deck, the spitball, tilting the pinball machine, grabbing an extra Scrabble letter or Monopoly card from the game box . . . When it comes to games, though we know cheating isn't fair, we also laugh about it, because no one gets hurt, not seriously; because it's just a game. It's not real; it's not life we're cheating at, but an artificial, completely symbolic game.

Okay. So then I think, Wait a minute; isn't school—isn't everything we do in school, in classrooms, artificial? For instance: this essay you've been asked to write. What's real about it? Is it going to be published anywhere? Will someone be paying for it?  Is it not just an exercise, a game? If so, then why not plagiarize? Why not cheat? If you can give yourself an edge in pinball by tilting the machine, or strike a batter out in baseball by applying a touch of spit to the ball, then why not cheat at the game called "school"? 

And if school is a game, what about life? Is there any good reason not to look at life itself as a game with losers and winners? And who's to say we should follow the "rules"? Does life follow the rules? Does GOD (or destiny, if you prefer) follow them? If a hurricane blows away my house, or if I'm diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, has life not cheated me? One quick look around is all it takes to see that, when it comes to the game of life, people are constantly being cheated: out of money, out of love, out of health, even out of life itself. 

A good friend of mine, my swimming coach, the healthiest man in the world, a man who kept in shape and ate organic oatmeal with fruit every day, died thirty years sooner than he should have of a cancer that should have been caught but wasn't. Fair? He played by the rules;as his wife said with tears in her eyes at his memorial service, "He did everything right." And still he "lost" the game. Perhaps he should have cheated a little more? Maybe playing fair in an unfair game is for suckers.

I'm not being totally sincere. After all, usually when we cheat it's not "life" we're cheating but others who, like us, are struggling to survive and get ahead. You can't cheat "the house." It sets the rules and holds all the cards. Like a casino, if it chooses to, it can boot us out.

And even if life is a game, still, isn't it better to play fair, to know that—however you come through at the end—you played by the rules and took no unfair advantages? You weren't like that guy who dressed up like a woman and snuck onto one of the Titanic's lifeboats. Winner or loser, you did not disgrace yourself or your fellow humans. You played honorably, nobly. You did your damndest and you didn't resort to cheating.

These are some of my thoughts as I cruise up the Henry Hudson Parkway, headed home.