Archive for January, 2010

In Memory of Teaching, Part 2

January 29, 2010

Teaching is Over

Teaching is over, and I find that I am letting go of students I would have kept near me forever.  Students are gifts in a teaching life, but they are all destined to live fresh lives beyond our experiences together.  With them, I have gratefully experienced illumination and grace.  Now I will invent and practice the rest of my life without them, seeking whatever happens on my own.

My courses in the final term were especially satisfying; they helped me to find a sense of completion and continuity. By the time my teaching ended, I could begin to say what it meant.  That term was a valediction, but it also meant redemption and self-rescue, as all of my teaching has meant.  I rescued myself from a life without affect by teaching and by advocacy for learners.

There is evidence that I have a talent for giving students some hope, and for helping them to see and feel the possibilities of knowledge and practice. Teaching is much more than that (it is collaboration and acceptance); but I felt superb moments and moving ideas in classrooms.  Less than a teacher, I thought of myself as an advocate for learning, knowledge, and practice.

Early in my work I came to feel deeply for my students, and in these last years, have sought nothing more than to help clarify their own constructive awakenings as they happen.  This is a good way to think of what I did.

And yet I have three tentative and somewhat dark convictions about teaching.  They are personal and professional, and they vary in their authority, but I know them to be true. They seem to be about invisibility.

The first is a lifelong, irrefutable conviction of my failure as a person, one who has felt motivated to teach as a way toward self-rescue, and who has failed at that. No one expects to fail, but all of us do, often in great invisible ways. In universities driven by contradictory (and rarely heroic, or altruistic) values, I chose to be a teacher, and to care as a teacher. Now, I see that as I made that choice, I also chose to live invisibly, with little evidence of success.

Still, teaching rescued me from selfishness (a life without giving, and therefore without meaning) but it has caused the frequent emptiness of having given much of myself away.

My second dark conviction is that, just as I have failed, I have also succeeded, but in invisible ways. Teaching is an invisible action. I feel confidence in the invisible, and in its value among us; I would not change my aspirations or my work, or my invisibility. The darkness lies in the teacher’s submission to responsibility, and to the hard challenge of the class. Teaching is distant from a life of action and outer engagement; I felt its constant obligation to act for the learning of others, and not for myself.

Third, I know that teaching is not a selfless choice, but to choose it is to disappear, even as the teacher is present in the lives of his students.  To teach is to disappear into the lives of learners. The teacher disappears by design, a magician whose final magic is his own disappearance.  To teach is to make invisible changes in the world, and to make others successful and visible in their own practices, and yet to disappear oneself.

(Students also disappear from the teacher’s life.  I remember moments in the silent classroom immediately after students had left at the end of the term, an empty view, an empty world. The emptiness of their disappearance is breathtaking, and it seems that one has nothing left of what had happened among us.)

As I leave teaching behind, I take comfort in my dark convictions, knowing that each is a necessary theme. The completion of my work – if that is possible to anticipate — remains unclear and ambiguous to me.  Even this essay was first titled, “Against Teaching,” an expression of lifelong regret for the careers I have missed.

But I know that I am for teaching, for reading, for knowledge, and for transformation and renewal.  Because I am for teaching, I am also for breaking through the limits placed on all of us, including the teacher, by fear.

When I became a librarian I found solace in assisting people to solve problems and make progress in their lives.  I became an educator and slowly found a way of living my life in order to find this same kind of solace.  My students have been generous in their graceful ways of allowing me to offer brief experiences, to challenge them, to offer refuge for their thinking and advocacy for their own powers.

They listened.  I came to love their lives and learned to be grateful in the moments when each class began, as each office hour, or each conversation in the hall occurred. At times, to teach was to be parental, admiring, encouraging.  At times, to teach was to be direct and intentional. At times, it was to be confused by how much I admired my students, and how well I could see their futures and how little I could know of my own. At times to teach was to be bereft of words, wanting to say more than I could say.

Every class, every group of students, has been a mystery, at beginning and end. At the best times it was my finest challenge to explain the gift of useful work and trusted service, the satisfactions and effects of helping.  It was also to speak about the promise of the future, to tell them to anticipate an end to the tensions and fears of school:  an end to bleak and slow semesters, preparing in darkness and isolation for some distant goal, worrying about the future, hoping for the day when one might come to act thoughtfully and independently among others as a professional.

I end my work with one more conviction: teaching is difficult and divisive, an intellectual solo, stand-up performance controlled by others, part Carson, part Kafka. Teaching divides us between responsibility and passion; it divides us between giving and judging; it extracts our vitality and redistributes it to other people. It is about transfer, legacy, and disappearance. It is about the tensions of the irrecoverable:  the giving away of what we have discovered and may have loved best.

The Destruction of Context

January 25, 2010

From the article, “Right-Wing Flame War” by Jonathan Dee, in the New York Times Magazine, January 24, 2010, p. 43.

“Not only can the past never be erased [on the web]; it co-exists, in cyberspace, with the present, and an important type of context is destroyed.”

And, from an essay about television, by George W. S. Trow, in Within the Context of No Context, 1981:

“Art requires a context: the power of this moment, the moment of the events in the foreground, seen against the accumulation of other moments. The moment in the foreground adheres to the accumulation or rejects it briefly before joining it.”

This adherence, the creation and elaboration of cumulative knowledge, is an invisible action, a work of minding, our work. Our work is the restoration of context, the grasp and admiration of complexity, the illumination of the foreground by the background, the transformation of the idea without visible human dimensions into fabric, into memory, into art.

In Memory of Teaching, Part 1

January 18, 2010

Situations have to be created that release the energies required, that provoke interest, that move persons to reach beyond themselves.

Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar

Over four decades my work was teaching: teaching schoolchildren, teaching library users, teaching teachers, teaching researchers, and teaching librarians. It has always been useful to reflect on teaching from inside its challenges, to grasp both its disappointments and successes. As I shed that teaching life (Like an overcoat? Like a snake-skin?) there are traces that remain, and I have assembled them here in a series in memory of my teaching.

What happens when learning happens?

1. Some Observations

We risk something. We ask something.

We are willing to learn. We think of ourselves as willing to learn.

A feeling of openness, or fearlessness, or play, or all three, is present.

A valuable problem or an unknown with no evident solution or outcome is present, and we want to think about it.

One or all of these is present: an agent, a helper, or a teacher; useful evidence, sources of knowledge relevant and valuable to the question; experiences that release energies, provoke interest, and “move persons to reach beyond themselves.”

Our experiences are about the present, and about our own lives as they happen in different situations.

Our new experiences unfold our thoughts and memories.

We communicate with each other face to face.

We seek and select messages on our own, and are not subjected to unchosen messages from strangers.

We are encouraged to think for ourselves, and we freely experience that courage.

We are free to place our attention anywhere, for any time, to pause, to return, to move away, to stay.

We are able to talk about the issues, objects, dimensions, and ideas before us, and we feel that we can express what we need to say.

When we speak to each other, our words become parts of our experiences of each other.

Every experience we have affects the next experience we have.

Our capacity to contain changes: we know more tools, resources, or paths.

Our capacity to act changes: we have more skills, questions, or strategies.

Our capacity to plan changes: we think of the future as possibilities and responses.

We make observations of ordinary and extraordinary things amid useful information.

We do not always make our thinking small, safe, correct, or purposeful. We think big, take risks, oppose convention, and imagine freely.

Our identity changes: we are less hesitant, more confident and articulate.

We do not act as anyone other than ourselves, and we do not act in the interests of ourselves alone.

We think of the known and the unknown.

We become aware of ourselves learning.

We become capable of expressing what we have experienced and remembered, if only to ourselves.

We are likely to trust the situation for learning in the future.

We are likely to reflect on our experiences.

We are unafraid of changing.

2. Some Questions

What is at risk when we learn?

What happens when the situation for learning is so open or broad that it becomes difficult to manage, or frightening to us?

What happens when the situation for learning is so closed or inflexible that it becomes out of our control, or threatening to us?

How do we negotiate and plan when the situation for learning is limitless or uncompromising?

What is our capability, when we are calm and unafraid?

Is our changing imperceptible, even to us?

If something is unknown to us, how can we describe it? How will we know it when we find it?

What kind of teacher or agent will we trust? How and when should we accept help?

What should our resources look like? What should they do for us?

How do we reflect on an invisible experience? How can we describe it?

When we regard ourselves as learners, do we perceive something inside or outside ourselves?

What motivates us? Our objectives? Our processes? Our needs?

What parts of ourselves become different in our own eyes?

What parts of ourselves become different in the eyes of others?

“In Memory of Teaching” has six parts. Next: “Teaching is Over.”

Last Night, Part 2

January 11, 2010

Typically, at the start of a course, I would distribute index cards and ask my students for vital data, please:  1.  Name, 2. Address, 3. E-mail, 4. Destiny, 5. Background …  followed by a pause to reflect, then we moved on.  In the second part of this last class talk I wanted to suggest that destiny appears every day in small and invisible ways, a possible self tentatively reminding us, as in a song, to be true.

When we think about the fundamental library cognition, connecting knowledge to knowledge in the presence of the unknown, we enter the magic part of our work.  There is no way to predict the cognitive value, ecstatic surge, or conversion of energy created by one connective act, no matter how frail the tissue of connection may be.  There are, of course, the natural connections between like beings, places, events, theories, and cultures; there are mirrors in every human and natural thing, waiting for us to recognize them and gaze into them and speak about what we see.

But I am more interested in thinking about the connections that are not driven by a natural order or the logics of reference.  I am far more interested in the ideas of insight (the small moment that changes an entire problem) and confluence (the strengthening resonance or solace that comes when you and I and others bring our minds together, outside of our insular differences). Our class, my students, has been a form of confluence.

As I said of one book we brought to class, “We use the metaphor so casually – the worldwide web – as though it is a new thing, our thing.  [We need] to understand that connection is human, continuous, generative, and ancient.  [We need] a long view, and an aerial view, of knowledge and complexity, information and its effects on our energy, imagination, and confidence.”  In this way, slowly and gradually, with countless setbacks and failures, we might come to create a practice that undermines fear, isolation, indifference, and blindness.

Among these we might first strive to reverse the blindness and begin to understand fear’s origins and how it induces despair in the long flight of human work.  Remember our responsibility for instruments of thought and vision, concepts to express the possibilities of public learning, and the diverse ways of looking at critical human issues and challenges.  We will be judged by what and how we gather, and then by how we give. When we cultivate these instruments together, in some cases inventing them to inspire our communities with ideas and thinking they have never held, we have begun to understand the cultural institution as a forum in a democracy, a place not a place.

Remember that much of what a cultural institution contains actually can be seen as a history of human dexterity, or a history of the human hand. This is clearly true of a museum, but it is less obviously true of a library. After all, what do we make by hand, what do we invent, what do we change, where do we change it, what do we teach, what do we touch, what do we give, in the making of a difference?  And yet, all meaning is a difference arrived at invisibly by hand:  a construction or a touch, an indication, a fresh connection, a book carried to a library desk, or borrowed and placed in a backpack.  I should have thought more and taught more about hands!

Now it is time to exhort you and end.

Never stop reading.  Reading invents our identity, and when we do not read deeply, our lives become shallow. Having just finished a book called Pretty Birds, by Scott Simon, about a young teenage Serbian Muslim girl pressed into service as a sniper during the war for Sarajevo, it is easy for me to say that (having recently been transported) the greatest difference ever made in human beings is the capacity to read.  The obvious reason, you know:  I read, I am a reader.  I love the police procedural, the western, the thriller, the essay, the sonnet.  But the invisible actions of reading make me wonder most:   How reading changes our intellects.  How reading causes us to ask questions.  How a great book is an incendiary device.  How reading is both our privacy and our openness.  How we are as permeable when we read as when we love.

Never ever underestimate the place of literacy in libraries – or, alas, the likelihood of the unappealing and perhaps imminent future that Tom Peters recently described in Library Journal as a place where, “Only at living history farms will we see people reading.”  Every day I remind myself that I am for reading.  What I do not do every day is thank people who taught me this skill; to be grateful that my father read; to remember that a library came to our town when I was in grade five or so; to acknowledge that I rescued myself several times from miserable choices by reading; and that, when I could, I made a new choice to become a librarian, and that I have lived a life constructed with books and renewed by reading every day for the past fifty years.  My courage, my possibility, what little there is of it, has come from reading.

So:  thank you to Mrs. Mills, who taught me to read in kindergarten, Autumn 1950; Mr. Woodruff, the principal of that school; Mae Carden, who wrote our reading method book; Cliff Carr, who read every day at the kitchen table and in the middle of his sleepless nights; and Mrs. Nordling – the first town librarian of Whippany, NJ.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived long enough to attend library school, to have taught librarians, and to have made a life among books. And thank you to Carol, who sees me buy countless books without one word of reproach.  Marry a reader and the pleasures of a reading life will multiply beyond counting.

My students, it is our last reading, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, that is the most savory to me and the most profound, because it confirms and illuminates the conundrum in the title of my essay and book, “A Place Not a Place.”  Even after writing that essay and others and collecting them in that book, I felt unsure of myself, and unable to explain with certainty what I meant by the title phrase, “a place not a place.”  Fortunately or not, no one has asked me to explain.

Manguel helped me to understand how the library embodies knowledge; how knowledge is our workplace, both inviting and constructing our imagination of the possible; and how such collections – library collections, with their extraordinary collisions and alliances, openings and expansions, gateways and locked secrets, variations and confirmations – are not themselves most importantly books or objects, but other, invisible things and invisible actions.  Like museums, libraries are living configurations, always in motion, always flowing toward something we are challenged to name.  What is it, this moving thing?

It is a process of becoming different, alone or with others.  Alone, it is a process of becoming something previously uninvented in other lives. Among others, it is a process of becoming something together.

It is an array of possibilities, connective paths, undesigned and almost imperceptible patterns; suggestions and strands, evoked not by themselves but because of our presence and our actions as we ask.

It is an organization of differences in content and perspective, a structure that accommodates variances, seeks out contradictions, and holds truth – where? – somewhere waiting for the person to craft it for one self, a truth to hold for now (as every truth is) until a revision becomes necessary.

It is a record of human change, perceptible and imperceptible.  It is a record of the human hand.

It is a forum, message center, meditation center, inquiry center, workshop, kitchen, laboratory.

It is a construction of categories and classes, precise, exhaustive, and impermeable.  And yet, it is also a construction of invisible strands, tangled, insensible yet often sensuous, vessels tangling and coursing between categories and classes, permitting the practice of constant, promiscuous and essential intercourse among them.

It is an endless conceptual web, and it always has been.

It is a hypothesis.  What will happen if we make a library here? What might we want to have happen here?

It is a mirror for every intellect.   It is a flow of new knowledge in countless forms – that flow including the thoughts and experiences of human beings walking through the door as I say this.  And so, it is also a perpetual encounter.

And so on, and so on, and so on and on and on:  this is my description of knowledge, our workplace, appropriately incomplete, certainly shallow and inadequate, an evolving fabrication of my own that my students have had to endure, as they have done kindly, for sixty or seventy, or eighty semesters, if you include summer school.

My dear students, it is fabricating, crafting, constructing, connecting, interpreting.  If I were to find a model for the librarian, it would be an artist, an architect, a musician, a choreographer, a builder.  And I would educate you as an artist, an architect, a musician, a choreographer, a builder is educated.

But that is over, and there is no more chance of that.  Instead, here are these words from the American painter, Robert Henri.

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.  If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign.  It was in this hope that the arts were invented.  Sign-posts on the way to what may be.  Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.

Every person (even if not an artist) deserves such moments in a life, and moments in a day where the sign-posts clearly tell where knowledge lies and what it means.  Not information; knowledge.  Because you have been my students, I have confidence that you all can decide the difference for yourselves.

You deserve these moments, just like everyone else.  In practice I hope you will teach yourselves to understand the relationship between living and knowing. I hope you will become clear about the possibilities of lives with information and the impossibilities of lives without information in democracy. I trust you will learn to use the former as ways to rescue and revitalize the latter. But mostly, you rescue the lives; then democracy will be rescued as well.

We are at our best when we give freely until we disappear.  Our fundamental value, as I see it, is to be generous with our gifts and judgments, and kind in our words to each other.

I am not yet done:  I have many more things to write and speak.  But I want to thank you for being my students in this last term, and thank you for being here on this last night of my work as a teacher.

[Next:  Recovered Documents About Teaching]

Last Night, Part 1

January 7, 2010

Tuesday, December 8, 2009 on the Syllabus

On my final night of teaching, in a course titled Seminar on Information and Culture, I wrote this for my students, and delivered it as I would a public lecture.  It’s not my typical style in the classroom, but the occasion seemed to suggest it, and my students seemed to forgive me.

Here, revised and partitioned, it begins a series of public essays named Invisible Actions.  Over the next few weeks there will be more on teaching here, and then other thoughts about libraries, museums, knowledge and the invisible actions surrounding them.

Thank you for being my reader.


The syllabus entry for tonight asks the question, “What do you want to have happen?  Your work, your unknowns, your designs, your knowledge.”

That big question and those big themes are similar to the ones I have tried to bring to my students on the final night of classes for about sixty or seventy semesters — probably eighty, counting summer school. At the end of a term, of course, there is nothing to look at except the future and what you will create in it.  Everything we have said to each other and done together in the classroom is finished, and we are grateful. Tonight, it is over for each of us and over for the temporary gathering that is a class.

At the beginning of the term, I suggested that we would address some things that are even larger and more important than your future.  The syllabus says,

This course offers you an opportunity for thought, inquiry and reflection about the institutions and constructions that surround knowledge.  It is a course about gathering and collecting knowledge, the purposes and effects of organizing knowledge, and the condition and presentation of knowledge for its possible users.  Necessarily, this course is also about fear and ignorance, the absence of knowledge.

The course is based on these assumptions:

  • While libraries and other cultural situations are important to understand, knowledge is our true workplace.

  • Knowledge grows. It deepens, extends, and connects. When we find and use it, and when we reflect on it, we make knowledge new.
  • Knowledge rarely grows simpler; it almost invariably becomes more complex.

  • Therefore it increases human complexity, culturally and individually. Knowledge also increases tension and responsibility.

  • Knowledge is useful and encouraging; it generates courage and undoes fear. Ignorance is not useful and it is discouraging.  It generates fear and undoes courage.  It creates conditions for chaos.
  • We keep libraries and other institutions to meet, negotiate, and undertake the generative tasks of our culture, guided by questions and the promise of knowledge.

I also promised you some things about our work at the start of the course in September.

We will describe more statements of assumption as we work through the term.  With attention and energy, we will think about the grounding of our professional lives.  As librarians – or even as educators, curators, journalists, communicators – we work in an institutional place configured by knowledge and driven by questions. Our task is to create these places by what we do; without our devoted attention to the knowledge they contain, they fail.

“What we do” and “our devoted attention to the knowledge they contain” are ways of saying “practice.”  So thinking about libraries – just thinking and talking about what they are and what they do — at least in this course, is an essential part of our practice.

Now, at the end of the experience, it is reasonable to assume that you will differ with me about whether these things have in fact happened, or whether my assumptions are true, or whether I was able to keep my promises during the term.  Even I don’t even have many confident responses to these evaluative criteria.

It is clear to every one of you by now that I do not like to explicate or explain readings, but rather I want them to speak to you and stimulate the thinking a class requires.  They were chosen to make your thinking happen, not in a particular way, but in whatever way you happen to be a thoughtful person.  The format of our class sought to sustain my belief in the reading group. A class is a way for people to do something together that matters consequentially to their attention.  I wanted you to remember why you felt a calling to library service.  Like any teacher, my job has been to help you to find your own form of magic – always an invisible action — and then to interpret it, and illuminate your next steps toward more of it.

It is probable that the questions I have asked in nearly all my classes have not changed over the decades.  The ones I asked you to accept as our guiding questions in September are variations of questions I asked thirty years ago in my doctoral dissertation and even in the teaching and service I did before then.

  • What can we say about knowledge?  How might we describe it?  In what ways is it created?

  • How do we create a critical definition of the institutions that collect, organize, and present knowledge? What can we say about them?  What do they have to do?  What are their strengths, failures, tensions?

  • How do we think and speak about the relationship between cultures and cultural institutions?

Standing in back of these questions we will find more questions for librarians. What is service?  What are our tasks as professional agents and advocates for learners and their cultural institutions?  How do we expand or explore our professional values as we serve?  What does it mean when we build a library in a community?  What are the possibilities for changing a library?  What are the possibilities for the library as an agency of change in a community? How does knowledge change things?

Perhaps it is arrogant to assume that knowledge changes things.  Perhaps I have found so much arrogance in academic life that even a devotion to knowledge can take on sinister intentions. No one gets a grant for their devotion, or for their service to an idea. Knowledge suffers; knowledge is sacrificed. When we look at the political and social worlds outside of the university, it’s difficult to believe that knowledge has a place in national life. The university, as I have known it, does not seem to care about changing that loss. As I now write a book about knowledge and democracy from my small corner view, this worries me, but it also invites me to work more, speak more, and assert more about what knowing does to us and what not knowing also does to us.  I am not yet done.

The foundation of the library and its guiding value is probably simple:  We are responsible for rescuing each other from not knowing.

Knowledge offers power and grace when gathered, rescued, stored and curated.  When saved and given, its power and grace are enhanced by the transfer.  To think about the gathering and holding of knowledge and experience – just to contain and keep these traces of human life – is a responsibility we still do not fully understand, even though it is our daily work.  Holding knowledge is never a passive act; building collections and organizing them are bold and revolutionary things to do.  We are challenged every day to live up to this responsibility.  It is too easy to miss, and easier still to have others cause us to forget it.  Our practice is what we do with the tools and devices we have created to increase knowledge. Our practice  requires a form of integrity and heroism — our devoted attention to knowledge — few professions can claim.

A second part of this talk will appear soon.