In Memory of Teaching, Part 5: Assumptions

March 17, 2010

These are three excerpts from syllabi, slightly revised.  When I was a teacher, I tried to live up to these assumptions.


1.

Education should nurture the independent capability of the learner; these experiences should contribute to the composing of a new life.

A thoughtful student can make appropriate, skill-expanding choices among useful and challenging tasks; making the choice is part of the learning.

Mature critical thinking and design skills come through various and sometimes unexpected experiences.

Any inquiry, especially under the constraints of the classroom, is always unfinished; truly important work always remains dynamically open, ready for new data or reinterpretation.

If what we do is an art as well as a skill, students should develop their work as artists do, over time, with the critical suggestions of others.

2.

The collection is the center of experiences, the evolving core of the institution.

No cultural institution can be excellent without an excellent construction of information — a collection proven to be pertinent, responsive, and generative for everyone who uses it.

Assume that nothing in a library or museum collection is there by accident; it is the result of a conscious decision and active planning in support of a mission.  This is important:  Everything here has been collected; nothing is present by accident; all collections are part of the library’s design.

Assume that mastery cannot occur with anything less than a flexible collection expanding, extending, and completing the user’s search.  We must practice with the best information at hand.  Therefore a collection is designed, never finished.

A good collection helps us to create new paths and connections. A good collection also makes us more competent and more committed to service and self-knowledge. A great collection does these things, too – but better than a collection that is merely good. A great collection raises human intellect, advances minds and mindfulness, and invites human presence.

3.

All  service to others is informed by self-knowledge.  There is no way to mastery without grasping for yourself a mindful process for designing and constructing a collection of information, and centering it on human beings and their needs.

No library collection evolves by accident.  Intelligent people create it, animate it, and change it according to what they believe it ought to be.  My purpose is to encourage and expand your thinking.  You should know what you believe about libraries and their collections; and to help you to envision how you will craft your practice from those beliefs.

In school – any school — there is no substitute for individual thinking, and there is not much science to it at all.  Everything we practice gradually becomes an art.  Therefore be prepared to understand that the librarian’s greatest tool is, as it has ever been, the imagination of people and their lives, their limits and possibilities, and the alternatives they have not yet imagined.

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Caring

March 11, 2010

Here are words from Nel Noddings, whose wonderful book Caring helped me to think about what a teacher does.

“Among the intangibles that I would have my students carry away is the feeling that the subject we have struggled with is both fascinating and boring, significant and silly, fraught with meaning and nonsense, challenging and tedious, and that whatever attitude we take toward it, it will not diminish our regard for each other.  The student is infinitely more important than the subject.”

Nel Noddings, Caring, page 20.

The word to savor is “infinitely.”

My Presidential Election, 1961

March 10, 2010

It is May 1961, I am barely sixteen and it is the spring of my junior year in high school, when class elections are held. I am now the junior class president running for reelection, a student strong in Verbal, very weak in Quantitative, unaware of his own weakness, hoping to show leadership or something. I hold several other offices. Among my peers, and by the faculty, I am seen as a leader, I think. I am not popular in many ways that I can tell, but I am regarded as having some maturity (an only child with old parents learns to read adults), even though I am about a year younger than everyone else. I had skipped first grade in 1951 when I was six.

It is important to note that I am typically ignorant in my own ignorant teenage way: New Jersey mill-town, school bus, marching-band ignorant, sexually nowhere, passionately everywhere. I am aware of girls because I am so confused that I do not know what to do about them. I am also at the beginning of watching my father’s life end, and starting to understand what is happening to him. He will retire this year and die in four. I will be twenty by then, and I will have damaged a good deal of my life. But, by then I will also have met my future wife and begun my self rescue; however, at sixteen my ignorance allows me to place nearly all of these complexities in some other room of consciousness, then lock the door.

My laissez-faire, I’m-entitled, gracefully undistinguished, near fatally bland presidential candidacy is troubled by two opponents – amazingly, they are less-qualified than I, a difficult idea to grasp in itself – who also want to demonstrate their leadership out of an altruism as shallow as my own, awakened by the college applications we will begin to fill out by fall. Steve is a very nice guy, currently vice president of the class, an athlete and a decent person. I wish I were more like him. Nick is a smart and kind-of-brash fellow, with roots among the solid middle of our class, and a no-nonsense way of talking. He had a cowlick as I did; but my head was shorn. Neither Steve nor Nick is in an honors class, as I am. They probably ought to be. (I hope by now they have come to understand their good fortune in not being in one. I hope they have had wonderful lives and never think of me.)

The issues of the election are, even for then, hilariously inconsequential, and I only remember one. Having been bullied by an older neighborhood boy, I have publicly expressed doubt about the maturity of seniors hazing freshman. It has been published in the Q. & A. column of our school newspaper, The Triad, with a photograph (I think) of my crew cut empty head. The idea that I, as senior class president, would end the traditional delight of hazing is too much for many of my classmates to bear, and so the issue is presented to me suddenly at the big Candidates’ Debate. Stunned by this crude strategy, I stumble and reel, mumbling something about how it’s my personal observation and opinion, um, and not an, um, uh, a presidential policy decision. It was lame, I was lame, and I felt still lamer when Nick and his comrades nailed a campaign poster to a tree in my yard urging all drivers-by to Vote for Nick Senior Class Pres. It seemed unfair of me to take it down, so I think it remained.

Maybe I took it down, I really don’t remember now. Looking back from here, that cardboard poster is an audacious thing to have done, and now I can admire it even though at sixteen I am self-righteously outraged by the audacity. I also know that it has to have been nailed to our tree by Nick’s friends, maybe with Nick in the car (I don’t think he drove yet), because nobody walked anywhere in my town, no sidewalks — just ditches. So I think I vaguely had an idea of what distinguished him from me:   the audacity of the poster, of course, but also the friends. Who would help me put up a piece of cardboard? Can’t think of anyone now.

Election day happens and at the end of it I hear the class advisor, Mr. Keyes (as I will call him), make the announcement on the PA system that I am the winner. Mr. Keyes has already been my sophomore English teacher and has changed my life. He makes me feel like a reader and a writer and gives me a wild idea that I might grow up less stupid than I would have otherwise. He is my Humanities teacher in senior year and I will consider him a friend.   In fewer than five years he will attend our wedding.

Hands are shaken. The election is ended. I have won. I see my advisor in a fervent meeting with Mr. Whatzit, the assistant principal, typical sadist-administrator, forever enshrined in memory as a classic bastard. I go home on the late bus as usual. Then the school year ends. Senior year begins and students are hazed with a little more fun and a little less sadism than I remember. Senior year happens in full, and I serve my time, and then am done with high school.

A few months on, in the third week of September 1962, seventeen years and five months old, I go off to fail for eighteen months at the University of Virginia, where I am probably the least-well-adjusted first-year student, except for one classmate who slit his wrists. I want to become a poet, and so I write fervently about my death and begin a lifelong romance with suicide. My invocations of honor, integrity, and dignity are not very useful; none of my ideals save me; I know I am done for at UVa. After the murder of John Kennedy in 1963, I rescue myself from Virginia and I go back to New Jersey, to live at home and attend another college where I begin to survive. I get a part-time job in a cemetery, which helps my poetry.

It is 1964 when I make this escape, John Kennedy dead just two months. By my college graduation in 1967, I will have occupied the Dean’s List, secured admission to Teachers College – Columbia University, and married. By then, my father will be dead for nearly two years and my mother will have become emotionally dependent on me for the rest of her life, which will endure until 1994. In 1968 I will become a public school teacher in Princeton, NJ, but I will find that it is not possible for me to be an authentic teacher in a public school, and I will move on, rescuing myself over and over for the rest of my life until I have become a real teacher as I think I am now, an old man in the subsequent century. But I remember now that this is in the future, and I am not yet done with the past. Authenticity is always at the core of my story, and so I must go back to it.

Here, however, I want to extend this narrative pause to say that this story is about a long confusion, founded on a small school experience and a subsequent, fated time of being young, just before life became complicated by war. After nearly fifty years, I still think about this story, but it seems important to note that I have no trauma, that I have survived. It must also be said that I have had a particular talent for errors and confusions. Like most people, I have been perfectly capable of generating my own problems. This story is all ignorance and innocence, but it is what happened and what I still wonder over, one irresolvable unfinished issue, among others. Now, the narrative resumes.

I am now, probably, eighteen. Mr. Keyes, more than any other person, has instilled in me the idea of being smart, reading critically, writing with strength and power, and — naturally – becoming a teacher. This is a daring aspiration for me, and ultimately a misreading of my heart. I have kept in touch with Mr. Keyes and another teacher, the instrumental music teacher, during all my Virginia failures. These teachers allow me to visit them at home. For what? Respect? Hope? Encouragement? Now I simply see a pathetic boy, undeserving of anything. As a failure since high school, I try to keep myself grounded in what had been my best years, now over. Those visits must have been excruciating for my former teachers, for their wives and even their children. I apologize to all of them, though I don’t know if they are alive now.

So now I am back to that period, a year after high school graduation in 1962 and before my self-rescue late in 1963 when I am most despairing and most certain that I am clearly failing. I have failed several courses at Virginia and will repeat two or more of them. Looking for solace, I am at Mr. Keyes’ house one evening and as I am leaving he takes me aside and says, “I have something to tell you. You never won that election. I switched the vote numbers.” Or, he switched the names, I don’t recall. In any event, Mr. Keyes says, as an advisor he could not work with Nick, the true winner, and so I was reelected by a fix, accepted congratulations from the others, got into college, served my term, spoke my foolish thoughts at commencement, left, failed to be the most likely to succeed, and came back.

And so now I am now even more confused at eighteen than I was at sixteen. “Is this deception true?” I wonder. “Is this my fault?” I wonder. “Is this a coming together of all my faults, greed and arrogance most of all?” It seems deeply just and fitting for me to learn about this fraud when I can do nothing about it. In fact, I disbelieve this story for years, not understanding (until I am a high school teacher myself) the distorted values and misguided acts of high school faculty members. Later, I think of that fervent meeting between Mr. Keyes and Mr. Whatzit. Was it about the lie? A cover-up for high crime? It all seems true and logical, now, because I know my peers would have accepted my false victory as the truth, asking no questions, taking no straw polls. Unlike me, Nick and Steve went on to lives of normal happiness, I trust. But I can take pleasure in this one thing: I did not experience the humiliation of a public loss.

Over time the lie became my lie, the crime became my crime. I have never fully known what to do with the information that I was not the duly elected leader of my little class in my little school in those awful years before Kennedy’s death, before Vietnam and the rest. It seems so small, so stupid, as all of high school now seems. And I wonder: What would it have meant for my barely sixteen year old self to have lost that election in public, to have failed to be the hero I thought I was? What would it have meant to me by now, nearly 65, to have lived with the knowledge of that public loss?

I probably would not even recollect it, because my life would have replaced it with something else, something smarter, something not a lie. What would it have meant for the boy, Nick, who had won fairly? I only know what it meant to the boy who lost but unfairly didn’t know it. When I became convinced of Keyes’s story, I thought of calling Nick to say, “Nick, you won.” I imagined going to a reunion (I never have) and speaking about the lie. (“I have something to tell you.”) But I have not done those things, and so – even though it means nothing now — I remain a permanent, secret, impostor.

By the time I have taught for five years, personal experience will tell me that the moral universe of the American high school is often the most constrained, corrupt and undiversified realm in American life, like a punishing fundamentalist faith combined with cruel competitive sports. In many ways the high school is like a penitentiary where many potential terrorists are nurtured, just before they escape and go to college or military life. In 1973, after five years of teaching I will have come to see high school as a penal colony of young people kept in years of suspended life, occupied by empty games on a false playing field, controlled by teachers whose deficiencies and insensitivities are immense, and whose kindness often diminishes in proportion to their power and insecurity. (I beg to be forgiven by the generous teachers committed to the passions of teaching.) I came to see that the teachers of my youth, even the good ones, were doing what they were expected to do, living by the unspoken rule of bad teachers everywhere: Never Acknowledge the Damage.

What had my teacher done? What had I done? What was my life that it could be so easily configured by a lie and distorted by the truth? What would have it meant, to have lost in public? And, more deeply, why did I put myself up for leadership? Why did I not lower my sights, lower my profile, lower my inflated ego. Why did I waste my heart and courage then? I wonder this: In how many other ways did I grow up with lies?

I write now after decades of feeling myself, often, to be both an impostor and a failure as a student, a liar and a fraud as a man, an inadequate scholar and a weak thinker. I feel these things not because of high school, but because I now can see how much was missing from my life then. I know now that a key to adult life is becoming confident and courageous in youth, being and feeling trustworthy, and feeling mutual trust and strength among others. This must have happened for some people. But what kind of foundation can be built on confusion and error? What integrity comes out of superficiality? Still I wonder: Who is he, that person who never quite became himself?

In Memory of Teaching, Part 4: Thinking Like a Teacher

February 28, 2010

Still sorting out, still thinking.  I found this undated interview in my files. I have no idea where it came from, or what its beginnings were.

How do you think of yourself as a teacher?

I recognize that learners are in a period of transition and transformation, engaged by a number of unknowns, both personal and professional.  My work is to confirm the possibilities that wait for them in practice and to assure their fitness for meeting these unknowns. But I am really a teacher because I strive to illuminate values as well as tools and practices.  These values are also educative, professional acts of commitment and engagement: teaching, serving, questioning, constructing, reflecting, giving, expressing and becoming.  As a teacher, I want to communicate this to my learners:  I too am engaged by the same unknowns and values. I am always learning how to do this out loud, in public, in front of them.

What is the most important quality you strive to achieve as a teacher that makes a difference in your classroom?

Actually, there are two equally important qualities.  The first is encouragement:  I want my students to have courage and to be fearless.  This also reflects my own need and desire to allow my own intelligence to overcome my own fear. Second, I want my students to feel unfinished, and to sense that what I am teaching about is an unfinished issue, something that students have to reflect on for themselves or resolve by learning in practice.

When things are working really well (or badly) in the classroom, how can you tell?  What are the critical indicators of success in the moment?

When people talk, I feel that something has happened.  When they are silent – as they often are in my classes – I have no idea what is happening.  But silent students have told me in later years that they were engaged, moved, grateful, and happy.  So I strive not to judge on the basis of what I see. I have to trust in the invisible as all teachers do

One term I was teaching and ruminating about our Field Experience Seminar, and the learning that can be done only outside the classroom —

  • The collaborations of a workplace
  • Self-evaluation in practice, evaluating others, being evaluated by peers
  • The politics of organizations and staff members
  • Continuing to learn, continuing to think fresh thoughts amid routines

— and I started to talk with some of my materials selection class about the same things one day.  Students actually told me they felt moved by that conversation.  But I could not have predicted that; nor did I know it while it was happening.

How do I know when things are going well? Here are three circumstances:  [1] When I am putting myself at risk, saying things in fresh ways, or things I have never thought until that moment of saying them.  [2] When students are not expecting something to seize them, but it does.  I don’t know how to cause this, but I have seen it happen. [3] When I am able to discuss my own failures and lessons learned.  I have taught courses that I could not refresh sufficiently for my own growth, and so I have been disappointed in myself, and I have probably disappointed my students.

What are the challenges of teaching in a professional school, compared to a liberal arts discipline?

I want my students to understand that they are entering a world where they will be thinking a good deal about the common weal, about their own personal agency or instrumentality in the lives of others, and in making the world more workable.  And I want them to understand the nature of trust implied by public service.  One day, as I always did during my class in materials selection, I distributed the ALA document, “Libraries: An American Value,” printed on a small bookmark so students can keep it around.  Then we visited the webpage of the Freedom of Information Office at ALA.  Suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly, I had the backbone and nervous system of my course – and all of librarianship, perhaps – right in front of the entire class, and I was able to remind them, as I like to do when we talk about libraries in America, that Thomas Jefferson had just entered the room.

What steps have you taken over the years to improve your teaching abilities?

Some things have worked, some things have not.

(1)   I have developed each syllabus as a personal document (not a perfunctory schedule). By reading it, students can hear my voice and understand my approach to teaching.  (Unfortunately my syllabi have become too large and not as useful as they once were.)

(2)   For some time I used “mid-course correction sheets,” one-page surveys asking students to tell me at mid-term what more or less of something they wanted, and how they thought they were doing, and how they thought I was doing.  (Students rarely returned them, so I stopped distributing them.)

(3)   I have used office hours to remove myself from the front of the classroom and to teach person-to-person, encouraging students to visit for conversations about anything.  As have said on my syllabi, “If you do not do this – come to see me — it will be noticed.” The best of my relationships with students have followed from these office conversations.  I will miss them.

(4)   I found that even the smallest doubt or displeasure would harm my teaching for weeks.  Consequently, after an unusual, bitter experience, I stopped reading teaching evaluations entirely, and reminded students that the time to make the class better (or to express opinions about the professor safely and usefully) was during the class, not in its final hours. I feel dreadful about student unhappiness with me; but when I am hurt or surprised by student anger or displeasure, or feeling that I have failed, I can barely teach at all.

(5)    When I can, I remind myself that play and improvisation are often the most important parts of teaching a successful class.

Did you have mentors?  Did you learn from other teachers?

No.

In Memory of Teaching, Part 3

February 20, 2010

This is a statement from an award nomination I wrote in 2005, as I was resolving to leave teaching. I found it in my files. I did not receive the award, and I later felt humiliated not because it went to another faculty member, but because I found that I had wanted to receive it. That is another topic to address here, in the future:  wanting.  I was a teacher, and this is what I thought my work to be.

My work is to assist professional thought, reflection, and attention in cultural institutions, and to prepare learners who will go beyond their experiences in the classroom to design, contemplate, and sustain the challenges of new settings in their own ways.

The classroom is like no other place for this preparation; its distinct qualities allow learners to move forward to the edges of their thoughts about both the everyday and the extraordinary, with the welcome assistance and purpose of a teacher.  Good teaching gently invites the learner to move beyond these edges of thought safely.  The teacher allows a grounded view of the possible, and a tentative way to enter. Teaching means that the learner will not fear crossing other edges in the future, when the teacher is gone.  To teach is to assist learners to engage difficult problems and possibilities over the lifespan, fearlessly and confidently, with both their lives and their profession. I believe that both the life and the profession are instruments of possibility.

There are always human lives to renew and nurture in the classroom, including the teacher’s.  As never before, teaching has become a relationship for me that increasingly fills and heals the heart and mind.  Having come to see the classroom as a bounded frame where I am able to serve and advance the many possibilities of practice, my work as a teacher holds these challenges for me:

  • Teaching is a mix of plan and improvisation; neither plan nor improvisation has much power or value without the other.
  • True lessons are equally useful and generative across many contexts – librarianship, scholarship, individual lives, personal integrity, acts of helping and giving – all are made possible by the same integrity in the human being.  Professional work is work of the whole person.
  • Learners must be building something of their own design, not the teacher’s – or their work in the classroom is lost.

The librarian and the teacher ask the same question, What is the bridge you need to build with my help? Teaching should help to construct this bridge in these ways:

  1. Teaching should create difficult, engaging, constructive, and surprising tasks, encouraging questions, explorations and insights from the individual learner.
  2. It is important to allow some tasks to remain unfinished by design.
  3. Education requires new experiences.  Cast the everyday idea (the community, the information structure, the museum) into a new light, so it must be encountered in a new way.
  4. Assume the person in the classroom to be a learner, a person who is interested in change, able to understand the challenge, thinking for an expanding future.
  5. Assume that the person in the classroom will live up to the idea of being a learner.  In order to change, learners must unmoor themselves confidently from their past lives in schools and out.
  6. Define patterns in the landscape of the topic.  Help students to see their own patterns and footprints as learners and thinkers.
  7. A teacher should emphasize the questions, possibilities, continuities, and unfinished issues of the course.
  8. Teaching is not simply to transfer a skill, but also to transfer belief, respect and affection for the learner.  I know that in all ways, teaching resides in the “zone of proximal development” described by Vygotsky, where the learner is invited to move forward cognitively by the model and confirmation of a more advanced peer.
  9. It is irresponsible if we do not prepare professionals who are mindful of the tensions of practice:  the variable situations, definitions and values; the unexpected challenges of thorny or uneasy colleagues and supervisors; the horizonless world, where no task remains finished for long; the need for vision and courage amid the politics of communities; the critical and delicate dynamics of helping; the idea that all learning is provisional.
  10. It is responsible to express the potential for play and variation in the interpretation of a professional life. It is responsible to assume the learner to be an apprentice.

To teach has meant perpetual, if inadequate, self-renewal and challenge; I needed to change, to be better, far more than I could manage. But students inspired the art and the integrity of it, what there was.  There is an imperative accountability in teaching. It cannot be reduced in value (by the rewards of publishing or grants, for example) without risk of compromising the formative quality of the teacher’s purpose, to give as fully as possible.

The teacher’s defining qualities are therefore not only knowledge or rigor. They are kindness and generosity, a will to give away whatever of oneself can be given, and the voice to say what learners need to hear in order to recognize their own ability, confidence, and craft.

Blogging

February 1, 2010

This is the introductory section for my February issue of RANews, the newsletter for readers’ advisors I edit for NoveList.

I no longer have any students but I find that I still need to say things, so I have begun to write a blog. My entries have been about teaching for these first few weeks, but I will move on to books, libraries and museums, and then to the unfinished, loose-end stories I need to understand as I strive for that integrated self so essential to a good age. My point in mentioning it here is that I never thought I would need to write personal items on the Web – I think of RA News as professional (even “library scientific”) work — but I have found it to be a wonderful challenge in my new life as a Real Writer. I will never tweet – unless I explore the constraints of the medium like haiku – no! Never! And I will happily let faces other than my own take up space on Facebook. But I do love to write this blog. And as I do, I am beginning to read with more happiness. Perhaps that is where the blog is heading, too: toward stories of my reading life.

Right now, for example, in my reading life I have been sipping at a book by a noted contemporary Irish writer John McGahern, By the Lake. The book jacket calls him the “Irish Chekhov.” I don’t recall why I bought it, but one of my recent “neglected books” lists mentioned it, so I recollected the volume from a dusty shelf and started to read. Here’s the news: nothing happens in this book (so far, and I’m halfway done). That is, people live – yes, by a lake near a village – and they interact, build things, grow things, harvest things, cook and eat things. They gossip, they regret, they visit and drink and talk and depart for home. And they talk and talk some more. But there is neither angst, nor a sudden passing away, nor crisis, nor crime to stir me: it’s a book about what happens when people live and talk to each other.

Perhaps it’s a rare  genre: novels about people at peace with themselves in a landscape, undistorted by striving for more. This reminds me of my mock resolution for the new year, “less striving in 2010,” meaning:  find contentment in yourself wherever you can. And now I am reminded of a quotation from the Dalai Lama a student included in one of the final papers I read last term, as my teaching beacon went out. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”  And so it is.

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]