What We Do Not Easily Talk About

August 6, 2013

I. Everyday experience and how thinking changes in small ways over time

II. Epiphanies: unexpected feelings, memories, insights, flashes, ideas, recognitions, explosions

III. Observable connections between abstract ideas and concrete experiences

IV. Questions, issues, unknowns that continue to interest us over time; ambiguities, tensions, issues that do not go away

V. Crafted truths, composed out of our own experiences and unexpected lessons

VI. Erroneous expectations as legacies from our parents and families

VII. What we fear about our own beliefs: that they may be wrong, that we have been unfair, that we must revise our ideas

VIII. Compassion, empathy, kindness


A Museum For Oneself

July 6, 2013

A Museum For Oneself

As a nation, and especially in American cultural institutions, we might focus less on the achievements of perpetually racing children and more on their promise as able, thoughtful human beings.

Some months ago an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education expressed concerns raised by law school administrators over the rising effects of ideologies and practices associated with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. (1) The article also cited an essay from Academe written by a high school teacher warning college and university faculty about what they might anticipate from entering classes. (2) The general perspective was familiar and dispiriting: for a decade or more, judgments about schools, teachers, and students have depended on rigorous standardized texting, and the students who have experienced it are now arriving in higher levels of academic life. Headlines remind us that dependence on the test has incurred teaching to the test and curricular adherence to the testable qualities of mind. Here in Atlanta, prominent school administrators face charges for fixing scores in order to reap rewards. Schools — always linear, always reducing the differences and energies that typify students – have further narrowed the learner’s experiences. Schooling and testing, always incidentally linked in the past, had merged identities.

Worse, teachers who have failed to inspire higher test scores have become (perhaps like low performing students) discouraged, unrewarded and unwanted. This is not breaking news. Descriptions of these deficiencies and related themes had appeared in an essay in The Nation by Linda Darling-Hammond (the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at the Stanford University School of Education) in May 2007. (3) That month I cited her essay in a keynote talk to museum research professionals in Chicago, reminding them that a generation of affected children were about to appear in cultural institutions, and that they might show some differences in agency and articulation. I speculated that many whose senses of curiosity and intellectual adventure had been rechanneled (or at least had not been nurtured) by schooling, would become a new challenge for museums. Museums, open places of stimulation and original thinking, of freedom and fresh experiences, have no tests to give. People in museums think anything they wish. Dependent on the vigor and engagement of observant kids and adults, great museum thoughts have, it seems to me, become imperiled.

As a way to bring this topic into public conversation, I sent the 2013 Chronicle article to several colleagues with this note.

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece … about something I have been saying to library and museum audiences for several years: that the effects of obsessive school testing on the curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination of children will have devastating effects on our society and culture over time. In my view, leaders have used such poor metaphors and terrible misunderstandings of intellect that all kinds of generative applications (ideas of justice and civility, individual responsibilities, the public imagination, even conceptions of hope) are probably compromised in ways that will show up in critical and reflective settings, like law schools [The CHEd article focused on law admissions] — and museums and libraries. Of course, school libraries and arts programs have not thrived in the culture of the school, but this is not new; the observations in this article offer something fresh to think about.

Because the cultural institutions we create and defend all depend on a robust private imagination — and the grasp of something unseen, the emerging person we hope to become — we need to think and talk about this. I have always spoken about museums and libraries as alternatives to schools, and even as preferable to schools; perhaps it’s time to revisit and redefine the vitality they bring to experience. (I recently saw the El Anatsui exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and felt my life to have been charged by a great force.) While I am not sure what El Anatsui might do specifically for law students, I see no reason why we could not rescue any resilient person from an under-imagined life; we may need a revised mission to define in the presence of this test-centered generation. (You might even find colleagues in need of this rescue as well — it is so easy to become distracted from our original promises to ourselves.)

Now I want to follow those paragraphs with some ideas that might bear advocacy in the culture of the museum, a place where I believe there is immense unrealized freedom for all users to think great, different, and challenging thoughts. The museums I know and respect are antithetical to a testing culture. A discussion could be useful.

The metaphors for education given to us by government, however, are not useful for museums to embrace. Becoming isn’t a race or a competition. (It’s a process. It’s about emerging as someone, not racing someone.) And there is no top to get to. (There are many places to go, different views, and odd personal journeys, unplanned side trips.) Metaphors have implications. If any child is left behind, why? There are many reasons outside the control of the child. One thinks of disability, disaffection, dysfunction at home; health, nutrition, sleeplessness; disappointment, mistrust. None of these justify the threat of abandonment or failure, yet they may be pervasive among many bright children. We test and test, raise standards, define and punish “failure.” This is how some children are inevitably left behind. And who is doing the leaving-behind? The schools and the government, to begin; and school superintendents, principals, teachers; and parents who want their children winning the race or standing at the top of something, maybe looking down at others. The road of good intentions – and the rescue of children is always a good intention — is paved with poor metaphors. (4, 5)

Like schools, museums are not innocent of being reductive and obtuse. Progressive libraries have always respected the privacy of diverse users becoming something through reading and thinking without tests, constraints or arbitrary predeterminations. A library is typically organized to keep structures open and prescriptions minimal. In contrast, museums have tended to embrace knowledge as standard adult scholarly information based in abstract language and jargon, delivered in shallow fragments. The nature of a museum exhibition is defined by massive collections of different, powerful objects, experienced serially. Despite the power of these objects, museum information tends to emphasize routine data without contexts, answers to questions that no one present has asked. Geography and history seem the strongest themes, even when the object is neither geographic nor historic. Consequently, if a museum is “about” anything, it is usually about the reconstruction of some great person, place, or time through artifacts. A museum collect traces of the past and then obscures every truth those traces – as signs, models, exemplars, symbols — might hold about the future.

With some great exceptions, museums have been deeply under-imagined as places for reflection, the cultivation of ambiguity, and the engagement of the user as a complicit actor in museum experiences. In my own experience as a museum user with a learner’s perspective, I have felt that my experience has often been deeply compromised for the sake of custom. (6)

I believe that there are alternative ways to match the museum to the lives of museum users. Imagine a museum that emphasizes great unknowns and generates reflective processes. Or a museum that illuminates the human tendency toward inventive thinking, invention, and connective insight. Or a museum of variables that comprise decency, passionate feelings and heroic actions. A museum of environments, economies, or education itself. The historical and geographic strands need not be lost among these emphases, and collections need not require relocation or recombination. The mind, stimulated, moves and thinks wherever something extraordinary appears. These museums and their collections may already be in place. (7)

For decades my work has been to assist professionals in libraries and museums to think differently about their institutions and what their purposes might be. What might users become if the museum were to live up to the purposes of its collections and mission? Is a museum of concepts and ideas possible? How might the museum be interpreted as a situation for thinking and becoming? On the back of my business card, it says that my work is “to advocate for the value of a nourished public imagination in a democracy.” Libraries and museums, I believe, are alike in their democratic purpose: to provide situations for reflection and exploration, conversation and inquiry among works and records – the traces — of human lives. “Every cultural institution,” my card also says, “should invite its users to stand at the edge of their experiences and then step beyond.” When I say that museums should not be like schools, I mean that they should create fresh situations that lead to generative experiences: new language, memorable evidence, applications to living one life. (8) It is difficult for even our most heroic schools and teachers to do this.

When I sent my message to colleagues, with the worried article attached, I began to ask the next questions about values, themes, missions and purposes, and the practices that might well be undertaken by museums to encounter an over-tested and perhaps intellectually exhausted generation in the galleries. Beyond avoiding government metaphors and federally mandated aspirations, I want to encourage my colleagues to think about the experiences of school under curricular straits and narrow customer centered planning and how they might affect one’s will to learn something intentionally and deeply, for oneself. The simplistic austerities of testing will be pervasive and their effects will be long. How might museums and libraries generate or invite the curiosities of users? How do cultural institutions learn to pay attention to something outside themselves? How do cultural institutions learn to embrace and address the experiences of living cultures? How do cultural institutions learn to think with and not for their users?

I wrote the following notes as I thought about these things.

Living Transitions of Thought. Cultural institutions are about the transitions of thought, imagination and expression among people. This continues every day, as an always-unfinished part of human experience. It matters when museums specifically recognize the activities of transition in living cultures everywhere (local, national, international) and explore their traces and markers. (“Are you thinking about change?,” the museum might ask. “So are we.”)

Traces of the Masterpiece. The contexts, traces and markers of the masterpiece or the common artifact are often its most important yet least visible parts. If a museum makes these traces more evident – perhaps for only a small number of examples — the object (and by inference, every object) becomes potentially surprising and the assumptions of its users become more questionable. If a user learns that every object has such traces and such evidence, perhaps new behaviors, questions and ideas may take form.

Knowledge Changes. It means new things every day. It is less about power than it is about movement, less about stability than it is about construction and scaffolding. It is less collective and more individual. Its character involves flow, abundance, privacy, cost, complexity, and the conditions of truth. These parts of information need emphasis whenever possible. Museums embody epistemologies and epistemic thinking that involves the mind outside the museum.  And so I might add here:  Knowledge Changes Us.

Transactions, Intentions. Culture is not something that is over when it arrives in the museum. It is continuous living engagement, activity, self-presentation, and conversation. Most important, culture is aspiration. Cultural institutions are not made to hold cultures still but to observe how cultures happen. Literature, food, music, dance, and talk hold some of these things as they happen. “Culture” is not present in a cultural institution unless something (perhaps literally) is being stirred.

Complexity Attracts. More than we are aware, we all want to be attracted to problems, and to engage in the thinking they inspire. This is why we watch baseball, dance when we are alone, listen to music, travel for pleasure, and cook something new. It is also why we go to libraries and museums, why we engage with texts in more than superficial ways, and why we ask questions of other people. Make things more complex and more extensive, and people become more interested and interesting.  It will always be important to think about, or to devote the powers of mind to, the difficult idea.

The Museum is a Problem to Solve. What are the processes and intentions behind these objects? How are these processes innovative or unusual? Are they natural or artificial processes? How do we know this? What can we not know about this? Where can we learn more about this? What is the unknown in the object? What is the unknown in the museum?

The Museum is a Clarifying Space. We go to the museum because when we are there we can think anything, select any object in the place to study, and connect any thought or idea to it. We may do this in complete innocence and perfect ignorance. Any immersion can take as long as we wish. In this kind of setting we might explore language, collaboration, inquiry, allowing our immersion to connect us across forms to other things. It is certain that what draws us to the museum, what we hope to understand, is in our waiting lives outside the museum, but imperceptible until we have contemplated something inside the museum.

Always, I hope to be cautious and respectful about suggestions, and tentative in making judgments, but if American educational practices have weakened the intellectual curiosity and individuality of emerging generations, my notes and themes suggest indirectly (at least to me) that museums should consider these perspectives as they work to understand the present and the future.

  • Assume that every museum has the capacity to emphasize and address the intellectual evolution of the user.
  • Prepare maps or guides to the traces (cultural, social, intellectual) of exemplary objects. Offer ways of thinking about museum objects beyond the museum.
  • Describe knowledge surrounding objects (change, invention, evolution, usefulness, possibility, scholarship). Talk about these important contextual dimensions with users.
  • Invite diverse, popular cultural events to happen in the museum.
  • Present the museum user with problems to consider and offer a model of applied thoughtful processes (heuristics) that have further use beyond the museum.
  • Remind museum users that the museum is not a school.

I observe and think and do not yet know how these thoughts might influence museum practices amid the austerities of schooling. They are among the points of thought I would offer to a museum striving for something to happen, something grounded in its own relationships with users, unconstrained by test scores, races, or uniform minds. In museums we want to awaken different, immeasurable minds.

1 Law Professors See the Damage Done by ‘No Child Left Behind’ – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/03/12/law-professors-see-the- damage-done-by-no-child-left-behind/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en

2 Kenneth Bernstein. 2013. Warnings from the Trenches. http://www.aaup.org/article/warnings- trenches#.Ucx5qhZyPjR. Retrieved June 27, 2013.

3 Linda Darling-Hammond. Evaluating No Child Left Behind. http://www.thenation.com/article/evaluating-no-child-left-behind#axzz2XROQ3Mcv May 21, 2007. Retrieved June 27, 2013

4 Better metaphors for the learner might involve gardening: germinating, cultivating, nurturing; or building and design: architecture, construction, dwelling; traveling, exploring, undertaking a journey without a map. Useful metaphors for learning and teaching should imply patience, design, persistence and variation, perhaps something continuous across a life. Ideas like conversation, collaboration and reflection have metaphorical qualities that imply situations where learning and thinking occur. Depending on the museum, a metaphor for the learner could reflect passage (I am a river), seeing (I am an observer), or the qualities a museum hopes to inspire (I am a questioner). Each museum needs to define a concept for the user’s mental world, the terms that define a user’s experience. It would be safe to say that personhood – individuality, resilience, and empathy – is the general frame for this concept. We know nothing about that mental world, but we imagine its complexity and competence in order to be of service to it. A museum creates a situation where edges of the user’s experience can be expressed, particularly in the form of questions and observations.

5 Metaphors for the experience of knowledge and information in the 21st Century might also be addressed: flood, tsunami, earthquake might apply. The museum also needs a metaphor for itself. Is it a forum? Laboratory? Salon? Conversation? I have cited the idea of the “open work” from Umberto Eco as a description of how only the experiences and thinking of the user can complete the space.

6 The repellent term “customer” replaces the condescending “visitor” in museum chatter. I prefer “user.”

7 My observations at the American Museum of Natural History several decades ago taught me that the museum could become a highly variable process of thought by asking a different guiding questions and creating different conceptual maps.

8 I am grateful to acknowledge that I am a graduate of public schools, where I learned to read and write under efficient teaching techniques. I have degrees from public and private universities. Everything I have done in my professions (teaching, librarianship, museum studies) has happened because I went to school for many years and graduated with capacities of service, teaching, and learning.

What Reading Means to the Reader, Part 3

October 24, 2011

5. This Reading Bridge

This bridge is not easily constructed; and, as the song says, no one else can do it for you, you’ve got to go there by yourself. To build it, we have to think of where we are now and what we have come to understand in getting here. We have learned to live with the ambiguities of having but also wanting, of loving but also dreaming. We have seen ourselves transformed by age and experience, and we have cleared our desks, sharpened our pencils and observed the guidelines as given by the proctor.

But, speaking for myself, it has become increasingly difficult to tolerate many absolute rules or values. Please, I ask: I am negotiating one life, seeking renewal every day, and improvising constantly. I need fewer constraints and more time for explorations. I am redefining the possibilities still open to me, especially the new ones, so different from the possibilities once open long ago, but so baffling then, and now closed to me forever.

I want to know the alternative stories I might have lived, the lives of others, the horizons of others; their legacies and metaphors. What has happened to the other stories? Who lived them? How did they work out? There are so many stories, we know now, and countless ways to live them through. We never grow up, I say; we grow through.

I have learned that a man needs to disentangle himself from anger and selfishness nearly every day, needs to remember the horizon, and to take a long view of it. I am defined less by what I have done than by what remains unfinished: the explorations of intimacy and caring; the hopes for a legacy of my own; to have taught at least one memorable lesson; to leave a record.

A man living my life or one like it has become aware of the mysteries between people; how we define ourselves separately from each other, dress ourselves to be this person, and not that one. I am aware of integrity and afraid of despair, and I have often lived barely on the edges of both. Increasingly those edges are what I talk about most:

Responding to the needs of others.
Rescuing others from emptiness.
Rescuing myself from emptiness.
Practicing generosity and caring.
Recollecting and interpreting the evidences of one life.
Understanding the story I live.
Living respectfully among others.

I try to live by these ideas: a fair man works to find and understand the commonness and the equality of his own life with the lives of others.  Never underestimate the power of these unfinished issues, because these edges of a life keep it in forward motion.

Until September 11, 2001, these edges for many of us were dulled, I think, by a contemporary ethos of the instant, the competitive, the entertaining, and the successful; these edges, our concerns, our hearts, were at best unexpressed. That day was our day of acutely knowing our edges. After our experiences then, we know that a common life, even our own, can have an infinite touch. And now, when we acknowledge that the world is not the same, it is as much for what we have seen that remains inside ourselves as it is for what we know has been lost.

I think there is not one person who would not have wished some heroism — some chance to rescue another person, if only we were there and able — some moment to act above ourselves and beyond our limits, solely for the life of another person. If and only. Now, these are not idle speculations, as they might once have been; they are promises we make to ourselves about who we must become, not because a disaster might occur, but because it will not occur.  Our heroism must be in our awareness, rediscovered for ourselves and expressed in our behaviors.

This is my lesson about the interior life that requires our dearest attention.  I think there is not one person who cannot feel possible loss, the unimaginable moment, the abyss, the edge of despair, the collapse of structures and certainties within, layer upon layer upon layer.  And so we are always challenged to rebuild those layers of identity, with connection, passion, generosity, and ideas.  If we are in search of compassion and understanding, if we are looking for our hearts, we must move to the edge of our lives and the lives of others as readers, searching the universe for signs of themselves, do.


6. What Reading Means

The readers are everywhere. The readers change form, attuning their reading bodies: leaning forward facedown into it, falling deeply backward into it. The readers are everywhere in silence, though they hear a voice. The readers are everywhere unmoving, though they are in motion. The readers everywhere are private, though they are open, exposed, visible. They are nearby everywhere, though they accept the premises of another world, the written world apart from this one.

The readers are immersed in another logic, different from any of their own, immersed as well in an ethics, a history, a flow of time and mind. Immersed, they are themselves created by this other world, not their own, emerging nurtured into it as though from an egg. They rise, awaken, and look about themselves, and the readers give their own senses to another place; rising, the readers are no longer simply themselves, nor are they alone. They travel among others, with others within, their voices in their ears.

The readers are at risk, everywhere. They read, always at the edge of their own lives, minds like knives, cutting new spaces in an imagined wood. They live in configured worlds, carved of language. They live in other bodies, limbs made of language. In strands of experiences, fabrics woven of language. In boats, afloat on language.

Every time we read it is an opportunity to live up to the possibilities of the open experience, the voyage in the open boat, the journey on the raft, the promise of risking who and what the limits are. Readers read at the edge of discovery, a mirror to the edge of loss. Readers live beyond the constraints of one lifespan, one culture, one gender, one economy, one intellect, one body, one vision, one experience. Readers live in trouble and danger, in love, soft and pliant in the hands of others, distant in the lives and memories of others, until they look up, more safely or less safely returning into their own.

Readers are everywhere. In reading, they enter houses, rooms, beds, bodies of others; assumptions, fears, aspirations; tenements, jungles, seascapes. In reading, they are given to encounter and explore what they have asked to be given: the recovery of some fresh image waiting among the assemble memories of the past.  The oil on the skin, the remembered kiss, the breath of sickness, the inevitable loss.

The readers hold their lives and experiences as templates or screens; and art is played out upon them.  As they read they give and reveal themselves in reciprocity, offering in turn their fears to honor the fears in another person’s story, their passions to honor the other’s passions. Readers fold and unfold themselves into the reading; they are not here but in their ways of reading, folding and unfolding until they move forward into different lives.

These have been my reader’s questions:  Where am I at this moment?  What is leading me on?  What, in this story, is my story?  Why have I been abandoned here?  Whom can I tell about this world?  What can I say?

Reading is a world. Boundless, whole, complex, perceptual, challenging, incomplete, invisible, indistinct.

Reading is also a map of the world. Locations, relationships, entrances, exits, landscapes, highways, ranges, flats, weathers, traces, the forbidden.

Reading is tension. Greed, avarice, antipathy, ethics, generosity, kindness, assistance, revenge, forgiveness, enmity, peace, jealousy, acceptance, fragmentation, integrity, falseness, illness, medicine, authenticity, distances, presence, wounds, scars, conflicts, amity, dishonor, grace.

Reading is identification. Self, other, family, tribe, lover, enemy, artist, failure, doppelganger, mirror, twin, alien, stranger, unknown one, searcher, savior, saint, exile, prodigal, outlaw, violator, transgressor, restorer, clown, martyr, hero, magician.

Reading is a passage. Problem, risk, exploration, reflection, transformation, resolution, evolution, loss, victory, rescue.

I believe that we become who we are meant to be through thinking, reading and writing, speaking with others, and giving our attention to what we believe in. We work in a fluid information environment that surrounds us every day, where our engagements with processes (and not things) are about as certain as we can be.

Neither skillful mastery nor personal identity is ever fixed. It is a fluid and inviting world. This is a good condition of life: in the face of new unknowns every day, we have the opportunity to learn anew who we are and what we are capable of doing. It never ends.

How differently would we have to live without our trust and experience in reading?

We want to move forward to embrace our own lives, but safely and fearlessly; we want to shape our own becoming among people in a place we can trust.

We are given tasks and crises by our lives and our work; we learn to assume responsibility for knowledge, and we create our strength in response.

We build a human world that has never been built before, and never will be finished.

We find that the steady tensions of one life, and each life’s compelling issues, keep us in a state of inquiry and hope, and lead us on.

We believe that the experience of living and discovering knowledge for ourselves permits us to possess something that does not disappear.

We are all held together in a fabric of stories; the possibilities of interpretation enrich us; helping each other to listen strengthens our union.

We want a life that has the qualities of wholeness and integrity; and at its center, we want there to be a fire.

We find in reading that the fire must be inside ourselves.
And so, what happens when we read? Perhaps we become almost entirely made of mind, and completely unphysical. If this is so then we are somewhat apart from our bodies when we read. Except that we are not: we are even more deeply within our bodies, less aware of others, less distracted by an outer world.

Often, when we do this, an important thing happens: a reading community takes form. Reading and talking about reading confers on our engaged participants the capacity to imagine the possible in a democratic society. Once we have introduced ideas and processes to talk about them to ourselves, we find that we can never be the same. In my experience, this is how progressive discourse and expression can enter the community mind.  When we do this we learn that readers read not to escape their experiences and their lives, but to discover themselves, where they are.

Reading is something that only our own minds can do: it is always a first-person experience. No one else can do it for us, because there are parts of us, deep inside, that only books, narratives, stories and myths will stir. We need this because we are all unfinished, all of us are works in progress, never more so than when we read and speak together.

In my experience of such groups, we find that our conversations are not only about books, but also about our communities and experiences, and about our aspirations. When we talk together, we present ourselves to each other and become known to each other, not strangers. Everyone reads the same book, but we find that we have read it differently from each other. We come to understand our shared world through the eyes of others.

Books of the kind we have chosen are often the clearest places to see courage and human possibility, values to emulate in a world where models are rare. And when we talk, we complete the life of the book, what Toni Morrison calls its “talking life,” because it is talk that permits us to grasp the imagination of possibility.

What does a reading culture understand? There are other points of view than our own. We are all similar, and we are all different. We are capable of differing from others, and yet we can listen to them as well. We need to make up our own minds individually. We live through complexity; we become stronger through difficulty.

Perhaps reading is a space we enter, a place different from where we are and we become lost in it. Except we can often remember exactly where we are at times we have read something powerful and magnificent.

Perhaps reading is a premise we assume, or evidence of another person that we accept within ourselves. Perhaps it is a gift we accept.

Perhaps it is an act of travel, a going-there. A going-between the present and the not-present, between the fictions we read and the fictions we live. From the now to what Maxine Greene calls the “not-yet.” To read well is to look into an exquisite but promising or perhaps foreboding diary that we did not write, knowing it will change our lives to open it, but yet we cannot resist. We want that privacy to be open to us, those secrets to be revealed to us, we want to be present for those undressings.

Who are we when we read? Is there some wild part of us capable of being other than ourselves? Of course there is. That person is the person we look for, with hope and expectation, when we read.  What do you want?  What is the bridge?

What Reading Means to the Reader, Part 2

October 22, 2011

3. Every Reader Brings a Need

As I say, I think that every reader brings a need, and it’s useful for us to think of that need as an edge. I contend that it is our need to live on an edge that compels us to read. (I think of the late John W. Gardner, who wrote that we are problem-seekers, problem-requirers, by nature.) We cannot help but want to work on something. Many problems, many needs, many edges, many reads.

It is part of an American promise, I think, to become something together, for each other. This is democracy to me.

To read on the edge may be to experience the edge of a blade; our reading opens us like an orange, and pares off the thick skin of routine, dysfunction and heartlessness.

The edge can imply a horizon in each of us; our reading always moves us forward, toward it.
Or the edge can be like a hunger or a thirst, or an appetite for experience; the reader wants some cognitive nourishment, a sharp, vivid, reflective engagement in a new, unfolding world.
Libraries and librarians address the edge in every reader — the more edges, the more possibilities, but also, as things get edgy, the greater the reader’s need for trust and safety. Like all help given in libraries, reading advice has an intimate purpose, because it involves hopes and possibilities. Every reading experience can change a life, and become a watershed for the reader.

Or we might use Kafka’s words, where the edge is an axe:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us … We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

When a librarian recommends a book, what does it mean? It means we have made assumptions about the edge of another’s need, that frozen sea. The success of the relationship — its foundation for trust, satisfaction, and change in the reader — is an indication of having matched the reader’s need or the reader’s edge in such a way as to hone it, extend it, and confirm its value.

Librarians always work at the edge of a user’s need, and — like all work near an edge — transactions about reading are always fraught with risk. They imply intimacy and our advice has a very intimate purpose. We want to know where the reader’s mind has been or will be. We want to know what will unfold for the reader, but we also know there are no certainties in an unfolding world.

What we know to be certain in our own unfolding world is the presence of stories, the place of stories, the forms of stories in memory, and the ways that stories make us inextricable parts of each other.
Stores are histories. Stories are news. Stories are points of view. Stories are elections, defeats, and victories. Stories are lives, migrations, open fields, and forgotten gardens. Stories are jokes. Stories are grudges. Stories are parties. Stories are marriages and divorces, births and passings. Stories are wars, politics, and stories are what Dr. King meant when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. That is a story.

There is that arc in every life, and it is a story about us.

Only when we can understand the story, I contend, can we begin to know what our lives mean. It is a great tragedy when a life ends without its story being known by the person who lived it.


4. Important Cognitive Work

We read to know our lives. We read to think. We read to know our own story. Reading is important cognitive work. Reading affirms life, creates mind, adds dimensions to experience, counters entropy (the undertow of the everyday), and it wards off despair.

What readers need is help, courage, permission to take the risk of reading, if, like my father Cliff Carr, they are ever to encounter themselves face to face as they read.

This is why we have libraries.

What libraries mean to our democracy and to our lives is very clear and easy to say:

Libraries in America are cornerstones of the communities they serve. Free access to the books, ideas, resources, and information in America’s libraries is imperative for education, employment, enjoyment, and self-government. Libraries are a legacy to each generation, offering the heritage of the past and the promise of the future.  [This is from “Libraries: An American Value,” ALA]

Libraries remind us that we are all uncertain parts of the drama we live as a culture, and that we are all responsible participants in our society. Libraries remind us that the world is fluid and ambiguous, but it is less so when we read; and that, however briefly, we must think about reading, and feeling, together. And of course libraries exist to ask, Now, what do you want to have happen? What is the bridge you need to build?


What Reading Means to the Reader

October 20, 2011

Last night, October 19, 2011, I delivered this talk for the final time at a library. In this case, it was the Iredell County Library, in Statesville, NC. I will publish it here on the blog in three sections, of which this is the first.

What Reading Means to the Reader
by David Carr

What do you want to have happen?

What do you want to have happen in your lives, in your communities, in your minds and imaginations, in your families, in your children, in your conversations with others?

When we think as clearly as we can about the consequences and hopes we have for a life, we are thinking about the most interesting problem we can understand. How are we instrumental in shaping our own lives? How do we contribute trust, strength, and courage to the lives that matter most to us?

Another way of asking this question is, maybe, How do we live the best possible life, even a life against the odds, the one we come to feel we were meant to lead? And, perhaps, how do we help others lead their strongest lives, like our children and our companions in our places.
When we ask this we have to figure out what we mean by strongest life. It will not be easy, and it should not be easy. We want something challenging and a little difficult to see. We want a life that is not an accident, and that has a core of values and ethics at its center. But we also want something that surprises us in stimulating ways.

And we want to be human human beings, feeling all of the feelings that we have the capacity to feel.
You are readers, and here you are in the library. Perhaps you already know about humanity residing here, and feelings, and your life to be discovered here, and perhaps this is why you read, to find out what you want to have happen in your life.

I ask my second question as the one we need to ask right after that first question. If we can say what we want to have happen, then

What is the bridge you need to build now?

That second question, unlike the first question, is a metaphor intended to cause people to envision the change they need, and to see the process of building toward that change as a collaborative relationship. When we are in libraries, among librarians, we build bridges, and most often they are best built together. When we read together, I believe that we become something together.

1. We Read Because We Need Edges

In order to live forward, human beings need edges, and useful reading, no matter what it is – fiction, nonfiction, even a great cookbook or dictionary or atlas — is an experience of an edge. Useful reading completes an inchoate, unclear part inside ourselves by taking us somewhere edgy, scary, or risky, where our strengths and hearts are challenged. Edges make reading irresistible, because we require sharp edges in our lives, and cannot live very well without them. But our experiences in the 21st century have fewer intellectual adventures, fewer moments when we are asked to be certain of what we think and feel.

An edge could mean making a choice between someone and someone else, to stay or not to stay, to love or not to love, to believe or to doubt, or a choice among possibilities, where each option might mean a compromise, or a choice of opposites inside one’s own life, or a choice to live with integrity in a particular way. Each choice means we approach an edge; once we are on the other side of the choice we have crossed a divide and we cannot go back, because life means forward motion, always becoming, always crossing edges. No one ever moves forward in life without first wanting or needing to cross an edge of knowledge or experience, and then crossing it.

An edge could mean an extraordinary sensation or feeling, usually either sensual and sexual or tense and combative. This is an edge because it has a physical tension surrounding it, a surging excess of feelings or fears and hopes — and we can anticipate the satisfaction we want to have as we resolve them. Sensuality and fighting (or think of wrestling with another person, out of passion or enmity) bring our feelings and our energies intensely to the edge of what’s possible. In this way, touching the possible inside ourselves, we are tested by those two great themes: sex and violence.

As a reader you might experience an edge reading a thriller, when Travis McGee or Jack Reacher makes a conscious choice to seek justice through vengeance, or when someone takes up a cause against the odds, or pursues some unfinished issue out of the past, in order to complete the undone feelings of an unjust event. We readers are there at the edge. Or when you read Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish series of time travel and inter-century relationships, guaranteed to raise a kilt. We readers are there at the edge of that kilt.

Similarly, an edge could mean a mission where there is a rescue, a recovery, or a reconciliation, something that fate requires must be brought about. The chosen rescuer — and the reader — wants something to happen, an encounter with something unknown and potentially unlimited. Sometimes the hero needs to build a bridge between things, or between people, or toward the past, or simply to get home. Think of Odysseus.

Experiencing edges in great reading experiences stimulates those parts of ourselves that we wish to complete, or bring into consciousness, and gives us the sense of virtual or ideal wholeness that we usually cannot have because we lead real lives, authentic lives, but lives that are often by definition fragmented and unfinished. The edges we dream of experiencing are possible only for fictional heroes to approach and to cross. But they help us to find our own kinds of heroism, building and crossing our own bridges. To discover those places of crossing and to build our bridges to ford them, we read.

2. My Father, Reading

My father was named Cliff Carr. He was born 115 years ago today, during the late Victorian Era, now two centuries past.  It was the second Grover Cleveland administration, just before the election of William McKinley; and now my father has been dead for nearly fifty years, but I still remember him most vividly as a reader. He never bought a book as I do almost daily. But he read three newspapers each day, and did their crosswords. Every book Readers Digest condensed from the fifties through 1964. The books I brought home from school and the library. Any book just lying around. Every word, every week, in The Saturday Evening Post. And every Sunday, in the Newark Sunday News, he would read a novel published in tabloid form, usually some kind of adventure yarn.

Because he died before I was smart enough to ask the right questions he left me with a lot to wonder about. For example: Why he left his parents in England in 1910 or 1912 to move to the prairies of Canada alone as a teenager; and what he found there, on a farm in Medicine Hat (as I reconstruct it) until 1917, when for some reason I also don’t know, he and his mates enlisted in the Canadian Army to serve in the Great War, an experience that marked him so, he never talked about it very much.

(I have seen his 94-year-old signature on his enlistment papers, thanks to the Internet. And his experiences as a rear gunner have been refreshed for me by reading Sebastian Faulks’ wonderful novel, Birdsong, which repeats nearly word for word some of the few memories — of being gassed, and living with lice — my father spoke aloud, and I have come to imagine through my reading many things he must have seen and never said. But I will return to Cliff Carr as a reader.)

And so it was a particularly interesting Sunday when my father opened the Newark Sunday News to read his weekly potboiler, to find that its story happened to be set in that same part of raw and rural Canada where my father farmed on horseback before the twenties roared. Very interesting, he noted. I know from his brief revelations over time that he experienced a Canadian life so brutal and isolated that he could not bear it after the war to end all wars, and returned to the United States to be repatriated.

And so, now very interested, my father read on. Yes, the story was set in the same province, in the same region, in the same time, in fact, when he, Cliff Carr, as a young man, was there. And, in the same town. His interest was really piqued, however, when a fictional character with my father’s own name entered the story … and Cliff Carr in 1950s New Jersey read about a younger Cliff Carr in Canada half a century before.

This is another reason to read: we will always encounter ourselves in our books.



My Ceremony

June 16, 2011

In spring 2006, a pair of wonderful students who sat in the back of my class asked if I would perform their wedding ceremony during the coming summer.  I agreed and ordained myself at the website of the Universal Life Church.  The wedding was a pleasure, and an honor.  I will always be grateful for the trust of my students and the generosity of their request.  As a web-ordained minister (I have a certificate! I printed it myself!) I can also preach, baptize (Oops! Splash!), and memorialize the dead.  As I say in a joke, “I can do everything but the bris, and I am taking an online course for that.”  But I will do none of these things, despite my ability to solemnize most occasions with my words.  My career as an officiant is probably over.

Ceremonial occasions are important to observe, as I have told students who would otherwise have skipped out of graduation.  They are times of recognition, promise, and (in that most vital word) confluence.  In ceremonies we pause – we actually stop and come together — to observe that something has been changed by the will and work of loving and rescuing each other.  A person stands before others and acknowledges that the flow of a life has changed; something has happened to alter its course.  When we participate in these ceremonies, we are prepared to live with a sense of having begun something or having become something.  These are ceremonial moments we should not ignore.  Apart from what a commencement or a marriage or a death might matter to our families, they are even more important parts of what we have promised to ourselves, to acknowledge and remember each other.  These changes help us move toward the lives we want to make for ourselves.

During this past year my two daughters and their chosen men each asked me to conduct a ceremony of marriage for them.  Each occasion began with the same poem.

I want to be your friend / for ever and ever. / When the hills are all flat / and the rivers are all dry, / when the trees blossom in winter / and the snow falls in summer, / when heaven and earth mix – / not till then will I part from you.

[The Yüeh-Fu, translated by Arthur Waley]

The idea of wanting to be a friend of someone forever moves me deeply. It reminds me that we often speak of marriage as though love is its only or primary dimension.  As my ceremony later shows, my perspective on marriage is grounded in knowing that it is meant to be lasting, and that its bond is grounded on mutual trust and confluence. There are lessons in the moment that I strive to make visible. I like to think of the moment of marriage as the beginning of something unknown, private and unseen, and perfectly unpredictable.  I think the unknowns – each one different, hundreds of thousands, millions of them — are what make marriages strong or weak.

The ideals and perfections that most weddings seem to emphasize are to me artificial. I like the contractual side of it better.  Marriage ceremonies ought to be founded on the concepts of a marriage as work and discovery, and of being a “friend for ever and ever” in that work and discovery.  A wedding day is a happy day, but not a delusional day.

Work and discovery.  That is what we do together, when married. In my ceremony I tell the assemblage that we have come together to express our love and encouragement to the two who stand before us, and to witness as they begin to make their way.  We gather, I tell them, as observers at this beginning – at this unusual moment of human promise – unlike any other kind of promise we make.  In my first wedding ceremony, I asked my students to turn around and see all of the people who had come for this expression.  I told them, “All of us who love you are here to wish this moment’s grace to last for your lifetime together.”

“Life asks us,” I say to the two before me, “to give the gift of ourselves to each other, to strengthen and comfort each other over a long time.  If we are not meant to be for others, we are not meant to be. We are meant to be generous and to be kind, to take care, and to find shelter, grace, and safety among others.”  But marriage means something even greater: “When destiny captures us, and we know that we must live up to it through loving one person above all, we have arrived at a moment that changes us forever. For you both, this is that moment. For you both, your good fortune stands beside you today.”

My ceremony is brief.  It includes an expression of thanks, a reading, a lesson, an exchange of rings and vows, and a pronouncement of marriage.  It takes about seven minutes and probably could be shorter, but I always want to say some things.

For example, on these occasions, I am  thinking of my parents and my wife’s parents, and the missing grandparents and other lost forebears of the people who are joining their lives.  I express thanks to those who have preceded us but who are no longer here with us. I say that we feel their lives in us, and we know we are their children and their grandchildren, and we thank them for their mindful strengths and loving hearts.  I reminded my daughters and their partners that other lives flow into ours “and allow us to give the grace of living and loving to each other.”

Love is of course present in these ceremonial moments. Love is lovely, being loving and being loved is lovely.  The reading is about love, from Thomas á Kempis, whose model for love emulates Jesus. But the idea of love in his words is sensual and universal to me, it is secular and not religious, and it reminds us that love has many forms, many expressions, many lovers.

Love is a great thing, a great good in every way; it alone lightens what is heavy, and leads smoothly over all roughness.  … It carries a burden without being burdened, and makes every bitter thing sweet and tasty.  Love wants to be lifted up, not held back by anything low ….  Nothing is sweeter than love; nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider; nothing happier, nothing fuller, nothing better in heaven and earth  …  

Love keeps watch and is never unaware, even when it sleeps; tired, it is never exhausted; hindered, it is never defeated; alarmed, it is never afraid; but like a living flame and a burning torch it bursts upward and blazes forth. …  Let me grow in love, so that I may learn to taste in my innermost heart how sweet it is to love, to be dissolved and to plunge into the ocean of love.

[Thomas á Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ]

Each marriage I have performed has happened in the presence of water:  still water in a reflecting pool, furious waves on a windy North Carolina beach, water rushing down rapids in a Virginia park.  Perhaps not “the ocean of love,” but flow and confluence, tides and reflections, and the infinite depths and planes of our lives were made present by water.

I have been a teacher throughout my life, but I now understand (at last) that I sought to express to my distant classes all of the things I could not teach them, all the things that would happen to them in ways they might not expect.  I taught my students that our greatest skills are improvisational, perhaps unexpected, and always artful. I think this is true of marriage as well.

In my ceremony, still thinking like a teacher, I call them these unexpected skills the lessons of marriage.  “There is no greater wish than that each of these lessons will become clear to you,” I say, ”and then always clearer to you, as they have to those who have loved and married before you.”

But really I have no “lessons” as we might expect from the school-induced contexts of that word. “These lessons,” I say, “cannot be taught or learned by anyone other than you, and they could not be learned today or yesterday, only tomorrow and every day after.  They are lessons learned by two people, for and from each other.”

This is another reason for the ceremony, to mark a day when the lessons begin to change in form and permanence:

  • The lessons of responsibility and trust for you.
  • The lessons of thinking together with you.
  • The lessons of laughing with you.
  • The lessons of giving courage to you.
  • The lessons of taking courage from you.
  • The lessons of growing with you.
  • The lessons of being, quietly, with you.

I might add the lessons of generosity, the lessons of gentleness, and all the lessons of touch.  “How will you discover these lessons for yourselves in your shared lives?” I ask. “No one can say but you.  No one can know but you.  And no one will be able to express – perhaps not even you – what these lessons will mean.  But these lessons will become the best and most of your marriage, and now you are ready to learn them.”

My ceremony is nearly over now.  There is an exchange of rings, where each person says this vow to the other:

I take you into my life in equal love. I take you as a mirror to my self and a partner on my way. I give you my open heart completely for all of my life.

It is time to seal the marriage.  “Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be a shelter to the other.  Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth for the other.  Now there is no loneliness for you; now there is no more loneliness.  Now there are two bodies, but there is only one life, and it is time to begin that life as a living trust.”  I remind the couple, “Every day you will find each other in new ways and learn the lessons of this marriage in new ways.  Every day, you will be companions and partners, partners and companions, to each other.”

Your friend, for ever and ever and ever.

“With a kiss and an embrace, and with the love and affection of everyone present,” I end my ceremony, “it is time to start on your way.”  And as the ceremony ends, the embrace happens, the kiss happens, the marriage begins.



For Lisa and James, Anna and Brett, Eve and Dave, and for Carol

June 15, 2011

Small Pieces

August 5, 2010


Watching contemporary dancers last night I sensed that my passion (as a reader, as a teacher, as a writer) is the beautiful enigma of human expression.  Trusting these bodies to tell their truths, I found myself completing the dance in my mind, creating reasons for each movement, finding narratives behind the motions, dwelling within the dancers’ bodies.  To sit still where I was, untouched and unmoving, was to be bereft.  At the end of the dance, four people were invited from the audience to move gently on stage, each with a dancer, intimately alone in front of us all.  Instead of horror and fear of the spotlight, I felt envy; I thought how fortunate those four were to have been chosen for the moment and to have been touched by a dancer.


The rarest feeling I know, the one I covet most, is the sense of being safe:  You are safe.  There is nothing to fear.  Everything will work out. For years I have harbored an image of a place, some verdant corner in the core of the nation where it is possible to reside without striving or fearing the failure to write or work.  Had I been raised differently or elsewhere, I imagine wildly, it could have been more possible to feel safe.  There is something American that makes a life into a small container, judged on its capacity to contain.  Though my American life has held much for me, and my work has done some good, still there is the fear of being judged empty.


A small informal essay casually sent to a refereed journal, rejected with the usual whiff of pettiness and snoot.  I feel shame in having asked for its acceptance.  It is the same self-contempt and shame I felt as a disregarded faculty member.  Now beyond respect for anyone’s judgment of me, I should have learned this sooner.  All of my anguished feelings at work – frustration, isolation, contempt – came from having remained on the faculty in a state of shame.  I remind myself and find solace:  knowing that it was not an entirely wasted professional life. I tell myself that I did not trade the trust of students for the tainted favor of colleagues.  I tell myself that I can overcome the shame of having wanted something.


To wake fearlessly from dreaming is a gift.  To feel no fear throughout a day is a gift.  To enter the process of making something unafraid, alone, is a gift.  To feel a day that promises no fears is a gift.  To anticipate fearlessness, and an end to striving to prevent fear, is a gift.  Come that day.


In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among Asian ceramic vessels, only rarely can I sustain my intention of having no intention.  Objects I do not expect win me.  A bowl of late seventeenth century Edo, underglazed with cobalt blue, is perfect.  The “Black Raku Teabowl ‘Shōrie’ (Aged Pine) with Crane Design” is not perfect, but it absorbs my vision.  The canted flower vessel of the Momoyama Period with ash glaze, imperfect for seven lifetimes:  I cannot look away.  The shapely stone jar, Tokoname ware, twenty inches tall, twenty inches wide, has remained imperfect for eight hundred years.  Attention, perfection, intention all burnished in the accidents of fire.

Homages to Porchia

March 30, 2010
  • The imagination begins from what is

not what is not.

  • A letter is always arriving, always

opening itself in my hand.

  • In darknesses, all darknesses fall away

from the body.

  • When the words of the dead are remembered,

lips move in the grave.

  • Having seen the death angel early, I was meant

to mourn for life.

  • With each silence, the angel

flies through the room.

  • Lips at my ear:  the angel is here.
  • Ghosts speak out for rescue.  Bereft,

I search and search.

  • When the angel wakes, he calls me,

and I always obey,

sleeping then in his cold place.

  • There was a pinhole where

I could see the whole

landscape of myself;

but I lost it, refusing

to look.

  • I speak, I listen and seek over my life

like a bat, for the echoes of sound things.

  • When I failed to cultivate a memory of objects —

pottery, spoons, the razor, measuring weights,

postage stamps, the coffee cup, the pen —

the metaphors of my life disappeared.

  • I wish for what is never and it is infinite.
  • You have asked me to estimate the numbers of

my lost feelings,

and I am grateful.

  • To write is to contain, to hold

the true against the true.

  • The visible wound distracts us from

the invisible bleeding.

  • There are things that are not mysteries.

All words explain them.

  • For each person born,

a fable of glass begins.

  • The truth is action, it moves.

All these words are lies, and they remain.

  • If you are a magician, unlock my life.
  • My hand wears the glove

that writes these words.

In Memory of Teaching: Three Poems

March 24, 2010



These are my lessons and I want to share them.

Mrs. Mills taught me how to read.

We used the Carden method, black leatherette books.

Miss Mae Carden herself came to the grammar school one day,

driven in a limousine from New York

just to hear us recite.  Mrs. Bothwell taught me handwriting

of the kind I am using right now

to make this poem.  To tell the truth,

I have never loved any art more than this.

School could have ended then, forever.

But Miss Peer taught me how to worry and be afraid every morning,

sick to my stomach, throwing up at the bus stop.

Eventually I learned (among all possibilities) that it was possible

to survive having to sit behind the piano, emerging alive.

She read aloud to us.  Heidi.

Because I tried to cheat on a test, Miss Costanzo taught me

public guilt and personal shame, two adjectives and two nouns,

held tight in each hand ever after,

my palms sweating on those unmelting stones,

weighing down my cheating fists.

Mrs. Wilson taught me complicity, conspiracy, and condescension

through her sanctioned harassment of Georgie the “retarded” boy.

It’s obvious to me now how she hated him.

It was an education in power and judgment,

the most exquisite unfinished lesson of my childhood:

keeping an irredeemable conscience.

The year the public library opened above the firehouse,

Mrs. Donnelly taught me kindness and I taught myself sorrow,

harbingers of lessons to come when the failures

took hold of me and stayed. I began to be a reader.

From seventh grade on, I learned many things:

confusions and falseness, the struggles of an unformed helpless identity,

a common lot with the others, the small hardships of lifelong loneliness,

unspoken conversations at the kitchen table.

And that kitchen itself, the house as real to me as this one.

I can look in through each window still, hovering outside

to see the red plaid oilcloth on the table, and around it

the formidable haunted emptiness.

I also learned to type in school, and how to work

from an outline when writing prose.

I learned the yearning that has never left me.

My father taught me to be gentle, to love, to want a woman’s voice

present in my life.

I am certain that I contributed to his loneliness.

From my father, too, I learned the meaning of standing at the rim

of infinity, for all of breathless eternity,

in thrall to possibility.


Didactic Poem

Now you pay mind:

We are born to each other every day.

We enter a room expecting a difference

and we find we must give each thing away

that we had kept to ourselves

until we feel we have nothing left. That

is called making a difference.

We write a message in front of everyone

and the chalk creates the words.

We clarify our lives by striving for an idea,

an origin for imagination, something fresh,

something new and strong,

or whatever it is we do not yet know about this dream.

We look for something we cannot remember having seen before

in ourselves, perhaps the striving for vision itself, and

this is how we are born.

We want something to live that is

not yet alive in us,

some destiny, some arrival.

It does not enter, but stands outside us, breathing

and it is not us, but it is of us.

We are bewildered and unclear and apart

until we answer the two questions

written on the board by the chalk in our own hand:

What is the dream?

Who is the dreamer?

And then, before we answer we erase.


Farewell to Students

My task has been to teach you to serve, to

help you to invent your feelings,

your fullness of care, to

show you how to invent your hearts, to

give an intention to your longing, to

persuade you to love as I love.

I was a doctor and this was my task:  to place

my heart in front of you with my scalpel point

thrust into its little sections and say

this part is yours, and this also belongs

to you, take it, it’s the relic of a life I had.

I do not need it any more.

My work has been to bring

you gifts, valuable only in my own words:

a scrap of newspaper would do,

a recollection of something I saw, once,

from a moving train.

Your aspirations were my work.

And now in need of more gifts to give you

I remember searching where they were placed

in memory; I find books and give them to you:

bookmarks, my collections, seashells, a photograph

of myself when small, thinking of you.

This was my work:

to find you waiting for me,

to see you as though we had always

known we would meet here.  I would not

show my fear for you, I would not speak

my care for you, I would not say my lies to you.

Calm and unafraid, I came here to give you

a new understanding of magic.

In the end I came to feel you in my heart as I could not

in the beginning. To see you go was the purest loss,

a confirmation that  you had never been mine.

In the end my job was to teach your lives to begin,

to step out from the shadows of machines

into the calm emptiness of everywhere that needs

your voice, into the failures of courage,

fearless in the whispering approach

of the unknown, visionary in the dim light

that illuminates nothing unless I am there as well

to see it, to want it, invisibly, within you.

In Memory of Teaching, Part 6: An Event

March 22, 2010

At some point during the past several years, colleagues reviewed me.  I wrote this.

My work as a teacher is described elsewhere in these documents,[1] but here I want to write briefly about myself as a learner.  These are general statements of belief and practice, but they are also the principles that describe my work as a scholar and professor.

  • The way to learn is to solve a problem that you give to yourself, discover for yourself, or use to explore situations where learning can occur.  Among the themes I have described steadily are the continuing, unfinished issues that have stayed with me for a long time and continue to lead me on.  As a teacher, I ask my students to work with problems of their design, not mine.
  • Critical thinking is an essential characteristic of professional practice.  In the classroom, I ask my students to describe their understandings of process, exploring options and making choices, and the patterns of relevance and response that lead them toward information.
  • Some of the most important parts of professional service – questioning, interviewing, articulating, responding, reflecting – might usefully be regarded as art forms, the crafting of inquiry as an artifact.  Beyond skill, tenacity and accuracy, our work should lead to an evolving aesthetics of our service and to an understanding of designed practice that aspires to the qualities of artistry.
  • Good conversations about practice are not accidental; they happen between people with aspirations for good work, and they can lead to real, practical insights for the design of services.  Encouraged to collaborate in public, to assist each other in reference rooms, and to grasp the relationship between interdependence and success in the giving of help, my students cannot learn the lessons I hope for alone.
  • The truths that guide practice are best crafted from experiences in situations that permit error, confusion, ambiguity and doubt.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, these conditions have an educative value that a good learner would not want to miss.  We may not always have help, support, advice, or time. Consequently it is important to experience situations where we learn to rely upon ourselves and our own thoughts; to test, reject and accept them, and to discover that we are typically more able than we think ourselves to be.
  • Perhaps our greatest challenge is to grasp the large part of our work that will always remain silent.

In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds — a book I have often asked my Cultural Institutions students to read Jerome Bruner describes his schoolteacher, Miss Orcutt.

In effect she was inviting me to extend my world of wonder to encompass hers.  She was not just informing me.  She was, rather negotiating the world of wonder and possibility.  Molecules, solids,  liquid, movement were not facts; they were to be used in pondering and imagining.  Miss Orcutt was the rarity.  She was a human event, not a transmission device. (126)

I think it is my style, and certainly it is my aspiration, to be like Miss Orcutt, a human event in the lives of my learners, among professionals, and others.  This is all I wanted to do.

[1] See also:  David Carr, “Tensions of Teaching,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 1998, pages 195-203.