Student Teacher

“I am not a writer, a philosopher, a great figure of intellectual life: I am a teacher.”—Michel Foucault

A friend said recently, “Maybe you just like to think a lot. It’s not a bad thing, just who you are. A lot of philosophers are writers.”

I found this statement odd at first. Am I a writer or a philosopher? Why can’t I be both? In fact I have been all along. It’s silly to separate the two.

Something’s going on beneath the surface when I’m writing and philosophizing. I’m teaching. In fact I’ve been teaching all along. This blog is full of questions. My book is an exercise in self-discovery and a search for meaning you can hold in your hands.

Foucault was a teacher, but he was also a writer, a philosopher and a great figure of intellectual life. He loved ideas. He had a tragic sense of humor, perfect for (post)modern living. Like all great teachers, he checked his ego at the door and listened before speaking.

I’m not a certified classroom teacher. Why can’t I become one? Because I assumed fifteen years ago I couldn’t handle it? Because running from a challenge was easier than taking it on? I’m in a different place now, but with the same personality, the same interests, the same worldview.

The universe is not impartial. The gods have no regrets. Fate doubles back to meet us where we’ve gone astray.

Friendly Confines

My dad liked to say that in life people are free to choose their own confinements. He chose to become a teacher and found himself confined to the classroom. He chose to become a father and when I arrived he built a life based around my mother and me.

I say that our confinements help us appreciate the limited amount of freedom we have. By becoming a teacher my dad was not a librarian or a fireman or starting first baseman for the Chicago Cubs. The classroom became his world. He was bound by district rules, standardized tests, report cards and textbooks. But he had the freedom to teach Hamlet or the five-paragraph essay as he saw fit. He encouraged students to follow their passions, even though as teens many thought little of the future.

I’ve heard a theory that the major events of our lives happen no matter the daily individual choices we make. My dad was in a way destined to teach—maybe not in Chicago, maybe not English—but still a teacher. Even after his initial dream of becoming a minister wasn’t realized, he wanted to help people—lifting their spirits, nourishing their minds. Minister or teacher—he was in the same ballpark.

Oftentimes we try too hard to force the action in our lives. We push for things we think we want, only to see them escape our grasp. Then there are those opportunities we never considered, appearing out of nowhere.

There’s power in submitting to the possibility that my life follows some kind of destiny. Accepting the will of the universe and learning to live with myself? How freeing.

Testing The Limits Of Logic

I’ve been helping my niece study for the English and reading portions of the ACT. She asked me why she’s being tested this way. “I don’t think like this every day,” she said. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a lesson on logic—specifically, why colleges value a carefully crafted analytic approach.

The world is full of problems. People prefer order over chaos. College prepares students for the real world, which is full of chaos. Logic—or the promise of its power—puts folks at ease.

But I’m a poet, and poets like to mess with shit.

What about the world is knowable? Do words, phrases, sentences, etc. always give an accurate account of Reality? What is Reality? Who are you without language? Is love logical? Will achieving a high score on the ACT get me into a good school, secure me a high-paying job and guarantee my happiness?

Believe me, I’m working hard to tutor my niece. I want her to succeed and I appreciate our time together. She has a point about not understanding the ulterior motives of the ACT test-makers, but she still has to take it.

Logic has its place, no doubt, but what about Wonder? What becomes of adventure when the Secret has been spilled? Adults spend hours upon hours languishing away in cubicles. Given the gravity of our daily business, a moment of play—and time taken to indulge the Irrational—makes a whole lot of sense.

Independent Study

There is no outside, no escape from the terror of Capital.

Capital devours every critique against its insatiable appetite, reducing resisters to crumbs. Fighting back is noble but ultimately futile. Still, many people make a career (far, however, from a lavish lifestyle) out of protest.

Marshall Berman, on page 116 of All That Is Solid Melts into Air, writes that professionals, intellectuals and artists are “paid wage-laborers of the bourgeoisie.” They, according to Marx,

live only so long as they find work, and . . . find work only so long as their labor increases capital. These workers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market. (quoted in Berman 117)

In short, professors need to eat. As long as they’re useful (to the academy, the publishing industry, liberal think tanks, etc.) they’re employed, even when they pose a threat to the status quo by reading and citing radical figures like Marx. Dissenters, like apologists, still power the machine.

I’m no radical, but I am critical of the system, and when I’m deconstructing assumptions I remain in its trap. There is no uncorrupted thought, no theorizing my way out of the maze. I don’t get paid for teasing ideas: philosophy is my hobby, like woodworking or restoring classic cars. Sharing a passion for knowledge comforts my soul.

The cost of an advanced degree triggers thoughts of bankruptcy, so I’m pursuing, on my own terms, a free PhD from the University of Indian Trails Public Library. My thesis is a work in progress, tentatively titled Sharp Left Turns.

Page Not Found (Refreshed)

I wasn’t happy with my original Page Not Found post from May 7, so I refreshed it and deleted the old one.

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Books are self-contained bodies of knowledge. Readers searching for deeper connections are free to scan their references and head to the library for more books. This is the tradition of scholarship.

The Internet is a sprawling, image-saturated map with no territory. It leads users on an open-ended quest for pseudoscience, celebrity gossip and mounting piles of pornographic truths.

Books are heavy. The Web is far more mobile.

There are apps today for everything, including one that tests kids’ “logo literacy.” Parts of logos are missing but enough remains for players to recognize the company. This is about purchasing power, and the production of future consumers. Knowledge means finding the best deals before the Joneses pull up in their minivans.

Reading entails patience, context and attention to nuance. Its pleasure is often deferred. Googling is the drive for immediacy, “just the facts.” It’s a data game rigged by clever search engine optimizers in which sources link but nothing clicks.

Consumerist culture is raising a generation of browsers with no history but the accumulation of cache. Few can sit still long enough to digest the news.

No Ledge

I was reading a philosophy book recently and stumbled upon a random line break. The word “knowledge” jumped to another page, splitting into “know-ledge.” This led me to “no ledge,” a metaphor expressing the essence of knowing as I’ve approached it since college.

Pragmatic people see education as building a foundation of facts and figures, a baseline for measuring objective truths. They think that learning enhances mastery over the world, that it’s a tool used to increase confidence and stability.

But dynamic thinking is all about vertigo and disorientation. It’s a shock to your system. Searching for a different angle, you look out the window of your high-rise apartment and find there is no ledge. How far will you stick your neck out to glimpse what lies below?

Most people venturing into the unknown have a fallback plan that maintains the status quo. If things get too scary, they retreat to their comfort zones. Thoughtful people ask serious questions with no clear solutions. Excited by the prospects of deeper truths, we devote our lives to following ideas wherever they lead. Sometimes we have to catch ourselves before tumbling all the way down.

Getting Out Of Jams

Recently I parked my car funny, a bit over the line. Worried about the ramifications of improper parking, I backed up to straighten things out. That’s when my front tires got stuck in the ridiculously high curb filled thick with ice. Stepping on the gas moved me nowhere.

I couldn’t help but think about Dzmitry, my student at the volunteer literacy program I attend once a week. He had complained that night that I follow the rules too much. I should be more flexible, he said, especially if tutoring is my intended profession. This made me feel inadequate, a dopey conformist addicted to the status quo.

It was almost as upsetting as being stuck in a curb.

To free myself from this precarious half-parked position, I had to move the steering wheel, improvising on the spot. Just flooring it and hoping for the best were not working. A turn here, a turn there: steady corrections were required.

I was in a rut with Dzmitry too. My lessons had stalled. We were spinning our wheels. I’d have to change the routine, liven things up, tailor instruction to his needs instead of following some bland script. My role was to be less an imparter of knowledge and more a companion on our journey through language.

Getting out of jams can be tough. Sometimes we need a little ice or a bored student to teach us to correct our approaches, especially when we’re positive the old methods aren’t holding us back.

Nervous Is Good

I’ve experienced some major changes over the last few weeks. After struggling for years to maintain a job because of some severe anxiety issues, I’ve found myself comfortable with the reality that I now have two jobs.

In addition to my paying gigs, I have started volunteering once a week as a literacy tutor for an adult student in my community. It’s very rewarding work and something I take seriously. So seriously, in fact, that just hours before my first session, I started showing signs of anxiety.

A good friend of mine, a Russian-born scientist and professor who’s lived in America for over ten years, sensed my nerves. Martin reminded me that anxiety can be an asset, especially for a teacher. Even after twenty-five years of lecturing, he got anxious before class. Ten or so minutes into his talk, he felt fine.

“Nervous is good. Teacher is no good without nervous.”

A desire to do well, to be an effective tutor—my anxiety was not weakness but strength. It would make me a better tutor because I cared so much about doing a good job.

My friend’s insight helped me navigate some rough emotional seas that day. Returning home from my first night of tutoring, I remembered how just a few years ago Martin was my student. For about a month, we studied English (his fourth or fifth language) and American history. In getting him to say and then write, “George Washington was the first president of the United States of America,” I was accomplishing no easy task.

When I learned Martin had passed his exam on his first attempt and was officially a US citizen, I was thrilled for him and proud of myself. Now I realize there’s no sense in letting a little anxiety prevent me from helping more students accomplish their goals.

Chris Truman: The 4.0 (Part 2 Of 2)

As Truman worked his way through school, he had learned to cope with the mental jabs from his classmates. Somewhere along the line in his high school tenure, he decided against “fitting in,” and began to study in earnest. His late push toward respectable final evaluations enabled Truman–at his father’s urging–to complete an application for admission into Pinehurst College, a small liberal arts school known for its commitment to academic excellence. Another major plus–it wasn’t far away, so he could commute daily from safety of his parents’ home.

After a short wait, and much to his surprise, Pinehurst accepted Chris Truman and he accepted his fate. Life would never be the same, even if–as a young adult–the poet continued to fight the many demons from his youth. Bullying stays in one’s head regardless of the bully’s physical absence from his victim’s life. As adults, we fight battles whose roots can be traced from infancy–we re-live our childhood traumas well into old age. Even the heaviest subconscious trash floats to the top of our vast emotional oceans eventually.

Though he didn’t know what to expect, from day one in his post-secondary career, Chris Truman was desperate to make his name known. He demanded attention–from his professors, his classmates, his family–and achieving the ultimate perfection of a 4.0 grade-point average, he assumed, would garner him a bounty of recognition. The Void that permeated his entire being yearned to be filled–not from within but from without. Truman’s bruised self-esteem, hopelessly dependent upon others, needed constant care. Never mind that the light of one’s true self-worth emanates from the inside–the poet was desperate to learn from other people the length and breadth of his importance in academia. A simple degree in English Literature and Composition wouldn’t be enough–Chris Truman had to finish perfect.

The 4.0 became his obsession. He chased it. He ached for it. He lost sight of himself because of it. Pinehurst College, with its emphasis on do-it-yourself, liberal learning, became for Truman a place of great distress, for it was there that his desire for approval ran wild. In class after class, he strived not for knowledge in itself but knowledge as a means to earning another “A-plus.”

By his third year at PC, he was completely out of touch with his intentions in attending the school in the first place. Truman, in following his father, had thought himself fit to teach literature and writing to fertile high school minds. But his daunting pursuit of perfection prevented him from procuring such a lofty profession. He was a full-time student (and part-time Gem Foods Store stock boy) who wished nothing more than to conquer college–what might lie beyond his studies was of little concern to the scholar.

This lack in foresight would, after capturing the elusive 4.0, render the orderly-conscious Truman a total mess–spiritually, emotionally, physically, and financially. True education failed to commence until the moment he received his diploma in May 2002. The phrase Summa Cum Laude–emblazoned beneath his name–would haunt Chris Truman forever. No degree in abstraction could halt the impending doom of concrete reality bearing down his back. In less than a year, the very instrument that facilitated the 4.0–his mind–was about to implode.