Hero time

Some specialists are rushing to hold the republic together. I’m reading two more books that recast two lifetimes of research and thought as efforts to chip away at the thickening wall between left and right. One book’s approach is psychological; the other’s is philosophical. The first book, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, admits this rush:

People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything. Books have been published in recent years on the transformative role in human history played by cooking, mothering, war . . . even salt. This is one of those books.

Friends of friends of mine, prophets, came to town years ago and asked me point blank what made me tick. “I want to save the world,” I admitted rather sheepishly under some questioning that seemed intense, given the social context. They shook their heads sadly.

Thor and his brother Loki in Thor: Ragnarok

I told that story to a friend of mine. “Saving the world is something people give up in their teens,” she reflected. Yes, well, that’s because most people spend their youth testing their limits. I spent mine balancing my idealism by reading a lot, first Mad Magazine and later the Bible, both of which helped me develop a greater sense of irony. (Reinhold Niebuhr also learned his irony from the Bible: The Irony of American History is based on the Bible’s ironic worldview.)

Haidt’s ironic statement, evincing both self-deprecation and purpose, probably will lead to a lot of head-shaking. But it’s an idealistic age, even if some idealists, like me, wish to help talk some part of the world off the high ledge of political idealism.

After Thanksgiving dinner, we walked through the lit, empty outdoor mall by our condo to see Thor:Ragnarok. After long captivity, Thor tries to escape by throwing a large red ball through a window. He’s halfway through a refrain — an inspirational and idealistic proclamation about heroism — when the ball bounces off the glass, hits him in the head, and floors him. The motivational, non-diegetic music that accompanies the proclamation stops, too. But the music resumes as Thor gets up, completes his statement, and files through the window thanks to the crack the ball has made.

Today’s comic-book heroes enjoy irony, which separates these movies from the dark-and-light banality of their comic-book predecessors. But Thor:Ragnarok could be the marriage of comic-book Thor and Alfred E. Neuman, the mascot of Mad, whose satirical comic stories featured antiheroes and loads of prepubescent irony.

Our ideals, Thor: Ragnarok seems to suggest, must grow to accommodate irony and to encounter setbacks and even self-understanding. We cannot become like Thor’s trickster brother Loki or his captor Valkyrie, who let their experiences and cynicism trap them in selfishness in the universe’s hour of peril.

The second book, the philosophical one? American Covenant: A History of Civl Religion from he Puritans to the Present by Philip Gorski. Both books start with what we know: the country is divided, hopelessly so. Seemingly hopelessly. Both, then, start like comic-book movies.

Each of us, having dedicated our lives to something we now understand can save the republic, must come to understand that we are only one of those so dedicated and so motivated. And we must admit that we may have missed out on some normal stage of development.

Folds

There’s a book I loved as a child in which every turn of the boy’s sheet and blanket became a mountain range, a series of waterfalls, an army, or a field of cows or stars. A cloud of witnesses. I don’t think the boy himself was pictured. Was he sick that morning? Or an invalid, and never left his bed? Were the blanket’s folds the way from sleep – the pages of a devotional, as it were – and the bed made up on his rising?

P1060689

Wang Bi on Charles Wright

Sunlight is blowing westward across the unshadowed meadow,
Night, in its shallow puddles, / still liquid and loose in the trees.
The world is a desolate garden . . .

– Charles Wright, “Images from the Kingdom of Things” (2006)

The dawn of tribalism is both a force (“blowing”) and a movement (“westward”). Its effect on the West (the western meadow) is as involuntary and disorienting as synesthesia (“sunlight is blowing”). An intellectual understanding of tribalism (seeing sunlight) misleads democrats and republicans: they assume tribalism’s dangers are evident to all, even to those who feel a primal attraction to its force (“blowing”).

In tribalism’s brief dawn, the three branches of government, understood here as light’s three primary colors, converge and pan like a searchlight. They discover Western democracy, like the passing night, holed up in the “shallow puddles,” that is, ironically, in the least democratic of institutions: the “trees” of the federal bureaucracy and the various intelligence communities.

chinese art photo
Photo by Naomi Chung’s Daydream Art

“. . . Wang Bi was acutely aware that he lived in dangerous times, and it is quite possible to read his commentary to the Laozi, on one level at least, as a strategy for survival.” — Richard John Lynn, The Classic of the Way and Virtue: A New Translation of the Tao-te ching of Laozi as Interpreted by Wang Bi

Feature image photo by Internet Archive Book Images

The James

IMG_3246

When home, I walk along a beach or seawall and sometimes think of a conch shell. I hear the Atlantic’s breakers in the James’s soft laps, and I know the river hears the same thing.

Faulkner’s father once offered him a cigar. A teen at the time, Faulkner thought about it, accepted it, broke it open, dumped its contents into his pipe, lit the pipe, and, puffing, thanked him. Faulkner never outgrew his delight at telling this story.

Note: this post appeared first on Instagram @peterstephens

Against my ruins

Our cars at 10, 1, and 5.

430. V. Gerard de Nerval, Sonnet El Desdichado.


432. V. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy.

 434. Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. “The peace which passeth understanding” is our equivalent to this word.

Occupation meets preoccupation: a year of reading

3PictureUNHFacadeThis year, thanks to my reading, my blog’s abiding preoccupations made my occupation more meaningful.

A few years ago, my blog taught me something: my outlooks on my three areas of preoccupation – critical, civil, and spiritual – are the same. In each area I wish, borrowing Karl Barth’s phrase here, to “think dogmatically.” Barth uses the phrase to compliment F.D.E. Schleiermacher, a nineteenth century theologian, and Ann E. Berthoff amplifies the notion of dogmatic thinking in her own paean to Schleiermacher. It involves, she says, “the charge of keeping the code” but not by “pretending that knowledge and understanding are independent of interpretation” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

I offer two more quotes, the first by Susanne K. Langer, the twentieth-century American philosopher, and the second by Jean Piaget, the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist, that put Berthoff’s understanding of hermeneutics in different ways:

All knowledge is an interpretation, and we must choose such perspectives as will yield meanings of the universe which interest us . . . (82)

To understand is to invent.

This summer, I learned a nice word for my outlook: triadicity. In semiotic terms, it means that a sign and what it signifies, by themselves, don’t explain much and can lead to, as Berthoff puts it, “getting rid of the interpreter or destroying what he is meant to interpret” (Berthoff, Sense, 133). To avoid hermeneutical (and, I would add, political, critical, or spiritual) disaster, the sign and signified – the chief elements of a dyadic approach to language – need a mediator:

The only way to get from symbol to what is symbolized is by means of a mediating idea which must, in turn, be interpreted. (Berthoff, Mysterious, 73)

I began to understand my outlook in semiotic terms. I saw that, for instance, my preoccupation with the challenges the abolitionists and the secessionists present to Lincoln fit triadic thinking: Lincoln advances a “mediating idea” – the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” – as a way to counter both the secessionists’ strict construction of the Constitution (Berthoff’s “getting rid of the interpreter”) as well as the abolitionists’ desire to destroy the Constitution as a pact with the devil (Berthoff’s “destroying what he is meant to interpret”).

I read and wrote a lot this summer while taking three courses in composition instruction to prepare to teach some college freshman composition sections. These three courses largely gave me the flexibility to pursue my interests, and the chief interest became triadicity.

I started to see triadicity everywhere whether or not it was referred to as such. Triangles always worked. One instructor at the University of New Hampshire read a few paragraphs from Susin Nielsen’s young adult novel We Are All Made of Molecules. In it, Stewart describes his mother’s death as the collapse of an equilateral triangle in which his father, mother, and he makes up the triangle’s sides. It reminded me of the sad reliance on dualistic philosophy in the Common Core, in American politics, in many American churches’ hermeneutics, and in Constitutional construction. Like Stewart, I visualized a triangle with a missing base in order to cope with a tragedy.

I quickly began to summarize my three preoccupations around Stewart’s triangle, and I found a good fit for nine expressions of them:

3PictureTriangle

After my summer classes ended, I created my classroom’s bulletin board to summarize and contrast dyadic and triadic approaches to education:

3PictureBulletinBoard

One can hear this contrast in Piaget’s writing. The above quote from Piaget, “To understand is to invent,” is really the title of one of his two seminal books on how to apply advances in psychology to educational practice, this one published in 1973. Early in To Understand Is To Invent, Piaget compares what he refers to as “three tendencies” in applying then-recent “research on the development of the intelligence and cognitive structures” to education:

The first, remaining loyal to venerable Anglo-Saxon traditions, continues to pursue an empirical associationism with would assign a purely exterior origin to all knowledge, deriving it from experience or verbal or audio-visual representations controlled by adults.

The second is characterized by an unexpected return to factors of innateness and internal development. . . . Here education would mainly consist in training an innate “reason.”

The third tendency, which is decidedly my own, is of a constructivist nature. . . . It recognizes neither external preformations (empiricism) nor immanent preformations (innateness), but rather affirms a continuous surpassing of successive stages. This obviously leads to placing all educational stress on the spontaneous aspects of the child’s activity. (10 – 11)

Although Piaget never mentions Locke or “innate ideas” directly, one sees hints in the “first tendency” of an oversimplification of Locke’s empiricism that, to some extent, was designed to counter the doctrine of “innate ideas” prevalent in Locke’s day. The oversimplification, however, is on the part of the American educational system, which, particularly with its emphasis on multiple-choice, standardized testing and its business model of teaching, has doubled down on Piaget’s first reported tendency. The left side of my bulletin board illustrates this tendency.

One can see in Piaget’s summaries the same tendencies in education that Berthoff finds in hermeneutics. Piaget’s first tendency seeks to “get rid of the interpreter” – the student – as a meaning-maker. His second tendency seeks to “destroy what he is meant to interpret” by devaluing any text used in favor of developing the student’s innate gifts.

As Berthoff says, “thinking dogmatically means honoring a commitment to the third way” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

° ° °

I’ve run up a great debt to Ann Berthoff. She has written passionately and thoughtfully over several decades about triadicity. Most of her earlier writings addressed triadicity in the context of writing instruction. Her writing tends to be highly theoretical and critical of dyadic thinking. However, unlike many composition theorists, Berthoff has done pedagogy: she has coupled her engaging works on composition theory (The Making of Meaning; The Sense of Learning) with a full-blown textbook for the college freshman composition class (Forming, Thinking, Writing). Without her textbook, Berthoff would seem to take on the role of the perpetual backbencher, a gadfly who would come “out of her corner again and again . . . to attack a would-be pedagogical savior,” as Philip Keith describes her modus operandi. Keith is enthusiastic about her textbook:

It is a putting of cards on the table after long study, thought and analysis. It is serious and, to use the word of an earlier reviewer,?amiable; tough and nurturing, careful and strange. It organizes?while it swamps. It is a wonderful book, and the world might well become a very different place if it were used in even a quarter of the freshman composition classes in the country. (98)

Instead, like all of Berthoff’s books, it is out of print. This past summer, to get her latest book, The Mysterious Barricades: Language and its Limits, for less than fifty dollars, I had to order a used copy from Australia. Her relative obscurity is no reflection on her, of course. After reading her, I’m convinced it speaks more to the intransigent nature of American classroom practice, an intransigence that helps to give old, classic pedagogic texts (like Piaget’s) a certain immediacy since they often describe the same challenges and mindsets that continue to plague writing classrooms today.

In a way – and this is a grand sentiment – I hope to do for Berthoff in my college composition and ninth-grade classes what she did for her intellectual forebears. She gives fresh thought and new application to two fellow writing instructors, I. A. Richards and Louise M. Rosenblatt, as well as to several other theorists – among them Charles Sanders Pierce, Kenneth Burke, and Lev Vygotsky – who weren’t thinking a great deal about writing instruction per se when they worked out their theories.

° ° °

Here are the books and the Great Courses I’ve read this year. Thanks to my three graduate classes, I’ve also read too many academic articles, none of which I’ve included here.

Peter Ackroyd. Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution

James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain

Anna Beer. Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot

John Berger. To the Wedding

James A. Berlin. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges

Ann E. Bertoff. Forming, Thinking, Writing (2nd Ed.)

Ann E. Bertoff. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits (two reads)

Ann E. Berthoff. The Sense of Learning

Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Teju Cole. Every Day Is for the Thief (second read)

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness

Maurice Cranston. John Locke: A Biography

John Dewey. Experience in Education.

David Herbert Donald. Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (3rd edition)

Dave Eggers. What is the What

William Faulkner. Intruder in the Dust (second read)

L. Dee Fink. Creating Significant Learning Experiences

Joseph A. Fitzmyer (introduction, translation, and notes). The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX)

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage

Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers: The Story of Success

Howard Holzer. Lincoln and the Power of the Press

Michael Korda. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

Alan Charles Kors. The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Great Courses)

Pauline Meier. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Stephen Mitchell, trans. Gilgamesh

Michel E. de Montaigne (Donald M. Frame, trans.). Essays, Book One

Reinhold Niebuhr. The Irony of American History (third read)

Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods

Walker Percy. The Moviegoer

Walker Percy. The Thanatos Syndrome

Raymond P. Scheindlin, trans. The Book of Job

Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet (three reads; countless previous reads)

Dava Sobel. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Mark A. Stoler. The Skeptic’s Guide to American History (Great Courses)

Stephen Toulmin. The Uses of Argument

Alice Walker. The Color Purple

Philip Weinstein. Becoming Faulkner

Garry Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (three reads)

° ° °

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Keith, Philip M. “Ann Berthoff and the Problem of Method in Writing: A Review Essay.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 10.2 (1980): 98-103. Print.

Nielsen-Fernlund, Susin. We Are All Made of Molecules. New York: Wendy Lamb, 2015. Print.

Piaget, Jean. To Understand Is To Invent: The Future of Education. New York: Grossman, 1973. Print.

3PictureUNHFacade1Photos of building facade taken this past summer at the University of New Hampshire.

Slow, immediate

FullSizeRenderOver break I filled my
green, mechanical pencil with
lead.

What else. Alone

it represents
nothing, is indicative of
nothing, suggests,
intimates,
prefigures,
symbolizes
nothing that I am immediately aware of.

It counterposes, offsets, analogizes, compares with, offsets, is juxtaposed with, supports, qualifies, contrasts with, is inimical to, controverts, contends with, counters, challenges, counteracts, oppugns, parallels, withstands, matches, relates to, is set off against, and is weighed in the balance with nothing.

Nothing, after all, I can be only immediately aware of.

In fact, this lack of awareness
equates with, or at least is indicative of,
the immediate.

(You see, then, how I’ve spoiled
everything. I should’ve kept quiet.)

“Immediate” means, first of all, “acting or being without the intervention of another object, cause, or agency” (Merriam-Webster). Immediate, then, means slow, not fast.

We are the immediate, the mediators between perception and meaning. We have to find ourselves there before we learn anything else.

Most classes use the present to understand the past or to build a future. Eternity, if it exists, comes later. But I want to put my class, as much as I can and should, on a quixotic journey to find the present.

Ye who teach that eternity defies explanation,
go back and learn that explanation defies eternity.

The immediate is the calm inside the confusion before a comparison comes to mind, before the elemental lead is compounded with — as (God!) I just did here — or similized or metaphorized with — something prior or employed to foreshadow something coming. It is the slow, dumb present.

On rubrics and reading

On Grading like readers. I’m going over the following piece with my college comp students this week. I’m overly sanguine here about the possibility of objective readings even under the guise of a rubric, but teachers must play along.

Some of you have given me your papers for me to critique ahead of the due date. You’ll probably discover that my comments, now that I’ve graded your papers, are to some extent different from my comments then. I’d like to tell you why this is both unavoidable and good.

I hope I’m consistent with how I grade your paper. In other words, if I grade your paper one day, have a memory lapse, and grade it again another day, I hope I’d reach the same result. That’s not hard since we English teachers must use rubrics for our more important assignments.

But I think my grading of your paper with a rubric is not as helpful to you as my reading of your paper. Before I tell you why, I want to explain the difference between grading and reading. When I grade with a rubric, I am not doing the kind of reading your piece deserves. Instead, I am reading for: reading to see if your paper meets some preordained criteria. Your paper exists outside of those criteria, however, and it deserves a subjective reading.

Readers are subjective, thankfully, but rubrics, no matter how loosely they’re written, are inherently objective. The premise behind a rubric is that all teachers reading your paper would judge it the same way. Is that the way people really read, though? When you annotate a text with connections you find between it and your experiences, realizations, and previous reading, you are making explicit what your mind does when your read. Do you expect those annotations to mirror your classmate’s? Good reading is always subjective. I can be objective when I grade your paper, narrowing myself to a rubric’s strictures, but I can be only subjective when I read your paper.

Rubrics anticipate, but good writing often turns those anticipations on their heads. Shakespeare, you must know, would have gotten some bad grades using some of the finest rubrics English teachers have ever written. But, for some odd reason, I choose not to read Shakespeare with a rubric.

Because reading is subjective, my first reading of your paper is different from my second reading of it. Isn’t the difference between one’s readings of the same text the unstated assumption (the warrant) supporting every English teacher’s assignment to reread a text? The realizations, the connections, and sometimes the laughter and tears a student’s text gives me — would they be the same each time I read the text? And do you consider your writing so facile as to think that someone could exhaust all of its charms and faults in a single reading?

So I think I should model deep reading — subjective reading — when I can. I can’t make it the basis of a grade, but I can make it the basis of my celebration of your work and part of the basis of my suggestions for your subsequent drafts and for your writing in general. I just won’t often look terribly consistent if I do it to the same text twice.

Grading like readers

At times I am gripped by an absurd desire: that the sentence I am about to write be the one the woman is reading at that some moment.  The idea mesmerizes me so much that I convince myself it is true: I write the sentence hastily, get up, go to the window, train my spyglass to check the effect of my sentence in her gaze, in the curl of her lips, in the cigarette she lights, in the shifts of her body in the deck chair, in her legs, which she crosses or extends.

– From the diary of Silas Flannery in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler

Last week Meagan[1], one of my struggling ninth-grade writers, wrote a compelling essay on the subject of personal tragedy. The essay transitioned smoothly among narrative, analytical, and expository modes, and the command of language was strong enough to convey energy and deep thought. I don’t know much about Meagan’s family background, but over the course of the year I have received enough signals to piece together that something in her upbringing has been particularly painful. She alluded to this pain briefly in her essay in an effective and unaffected way, and she was careful not to become explicit about it. That care, in this first salvo fired on behalf of her freedom, only added to her essay’s force. Even in skirting the issue, Meagan had found ways to use language to better understand her experience and to record a kind of desideratum regarding it.

I thought about Meagan’s essay when reading Adrienne Rich’s 1972 essay “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” which describes her years teaching basic writing to “ghetto students,” inner-city adults whose journey into writing coincided with – or perhaps hastened – their journey into “a frontier of self-determination” of a personal, political, and social nature (18, 24). To Rich, a composition teacher gets across grammar, mechanics, organization, style, and the many other skills traditionally associated with her job. But Rich believes that a composition teacher also aims to “release [her students] into language” – that is, to help her students discover that “they would not be content with a perpetuation of the conditions which have betrayed them.” By way of explanation, she states the inverse by paraphrasing Simone Weil: “those who suffer from injustice most are the least able to articulate their suffering” (26). Meagan, too, is taking small but firm steps in the direction of self-determination, and her paper benefitted from the power of those steps.

Rich understands her primary job, then, as reading her students’ writing. Putting herself in her students’ shoes, she realizes that “in order to write I have to believe that there is someone willing to collaborate subjectively, as opposed to a grading machine out to get me for mistakes in spelling and grammar” (23). This passage’s two key words for me are “collaborate” and “subjectively.” Regarding the former, literary theorist Louise M. Rosenblatt believes that literary critics and many of her fellow theorists have let the reader escape their collective peripheral vision as they’ve focused exclusively on the author and the text. Her own theory, on the other hand, centers “on the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (ix). Her ideas have given me the theoretical bottom for my understanding of the teacher’s most essential role in a writers’ workshop – that of a model reader.

Rosenblatt believes also that the reader, as a collaborator with a writer, must be subjective. The subjectivity comes through an immediate awareness and reporting of his response to the text – the kind of metacognition, then, that we train our students to do in their reader responses:

[A reader or critic] can avoid the dessicating [sic] effect of excessive abstraction by incorporating as much as possible the personal matrix within which the work crystallized. Hence my insistence that much greater concern than is usual should be accorded the “first step,” the registering or savoring of the literary transaction. Whatever the reader may later add to that original creative activity is also rooted in his own responses during the reading event. His primary subject matter is the web of feelings, sensations, images, ideas, that he weaves between himself and the text. (136 – 137)

Of course, Rosenblatt recognizes that critics go further than their initial, subjective impressions, and I think she would agree that composition teachers also must go further: critics and teachers also have a necessarily objective response. She warns, though, against subsuming the subjective response into a fully text-oriented, objective response:

The “close reading” of the New Critics centered on the text. The transactional view also assumes close attention to the pattern of signs. But it assumes an equal closeness of attention to what that particular juxtaposition of signs stirs up within each reader. (137; emphasis original)

Rich quotes Sartre to the same effect: “the literary object has no other substance than the reader’s subjectivity . . . . Thus the writer appeals to the reader’s freedom to collaborate in the production of his work” (23). Sartre and Rosenblatt believe, in other words, that people don’t write to be critiqued. They write to persuade and move the reader, and they write to be understood. Like Sartre’s collaboration model, Rosenblatt’s subjective transactional model, with its consequent avoidance of desiccation and undue abstraction, allows the reader to come out from the shadow of the professional critic. From a less theoretical perspective, it allows the reader as well as the writer to move toward their respective freedoms. Rosenblatt’s model, then, is perfect for a basic composition course and aligns well with Rich’s practice.

My first, subjective response to Meagan’s essay involved wonder and, eventually, tears. Against the backdrop of my reading experience, her essay’s academic context wasn’t irrelevant, but it stood out to me at that moment as tangential, even cold; her writing was her second draft of the culminating essay assigned for a yearlong, inquiry-based-learning project. Early in the academic year, all high school honors students in our district select or create a “big question” and, throughout the year, examine the course’s texts through their chosen question’s lens. From an administrative standpoint, the essay assignment is our district’s answer to a relatively new state requirement: a district school system may allow English honors students to earn a half-point bump of their grade point averages only if the students complete an assignment that demonstrates the honors courses’ rigor relative to the district’s academic English courses. For the final draft, which counts as half the student’s final exam, a student’s essay is graded using a district-wide rubric by an anonymous English teacher who is not permitted to be her own teacher.

In anticipation of the final draft’s requirement, I used the district’s rubric in assessing Meagan’s second draft. Of course, this formal assessment based on the rubric didn’t begin to express my reaction to the paper as a reader. After I had read and graded her essay, I spoke with Meagan about how her paper had interested and moved me, and she took the compliments with genuine excitement. She asked me specific questions about what I had found to be powerful in her writing, and I answered her questions in detail. I had lots of suggestions for revising her essay for its final draft, but I left those in writing on the draft’s electronic version. Despite the suggestions, she had scored well on that second draft under the rubric’s categories. She approached her final draft with a resolve to make it even better than her second draft.

TheRubricA rubric’s necessarily canned response, as Maja Wilson points out, is the antithesis of Rosenblatt’s engaged reader: “Instead of emerging from what Louise M. Rosenblatt would call the transaction between an individual reader and text, the feedback offered by a rubric made bypassing that interaction all too easy” (63). Wilson finds that most rubrics don’t place value on things that matter in Rosenblatt’s transaction, such as risk-taking and voice. Rewriting rubrics to include better or more subjective values, however, only makes the rubric’s insult to the reader-writer relationship stand out more:

Writing rubrics to include risk-taking or promise didn’t help matters much since not every paper needed to meet all of my values about writing: while Krystal’s writing forged new ground, Felicity was a more traditional thinker and I didn’t think it fitting to hold her writing to the same set of values demonstrated by Krystal’s writing. The standardized criteria didn’t capture the nuances of students’ writing. More importantly, I found that my values shifted as students approached writing in new ways and we talked about their work and purposes. (Id.)

What’s an alternative to rubrics? Something straight out of Rosenblatt is in order, something that involves an awareness of ourselves as model readers collaborating with writers who need them. Wilson suggests that “we make ourselves transparent as we read – that we pay attention to what goes on in our minds and try to put our reactions and questions and wonderings and musings and connections and images into words – that we give students the gift of a human response. We are, after all, their audiences, while a piece of paper is not” (63 – 64). Humanity can replace paper. Conferences and revisions can replace bad marks. And we can still assess for specific, formative matters of grammar, syntax, usage, craft, and the like. Summative work, however, should be read by readers qua readers.

I don’t blame myself or my fellow English teachers for rubrics as long as we have looked into the matter, registered our complaints, and done what we can do to minimize rubrics’ negative influence. It’s hard to blame the teachers; after all, it cannot be said that rubrics are for the convenience of English teachers since they spend far too many hours grading with or without rubrics. Instead, rubrics help districts and states get away with sky-high writer-to-writing instructor ratios and help them also perpetuate the myth that, even in the English classroom, all assessments must be quantifiable to be qualitative. Rubrics also perpetuate the related notion of an objective standard for good writing with its usually unstated warrant that objectivity is preferable to subjectivity. Paulo Freire’s ethical pedagogy, in contrast, was founded on the reality and superiority of subjectivity: “I am not impartial or objective; not a fixed observer of facts and happenings. I never was able to be an adherent of the traits that falsely claim impartiality or objectivity” (Freire 22). Rubrics as a genre make the kind of false claims that Freire eschewed.

If one admits, for the sake of argument, to an objective writing standard, one must also deny any writing a subjective reading. “It’s possible,” Alfie Kohn points out, “to get a bunch of people to agree on what rating to give an assignment as long as they’re willing to accept and apply someone else’s narrow criteria for what merits that rating. Once we check our judgment at the door, we can all learn to give a 4 to exactly the same things” (13). When teachers agree on what a paper must have and look at no other attribute with which it may present, they are refusing to read that paper on its own terms.

Rubrics therefore perpetuate the idea that a text can be read only one way and is, consequently, subject to a single standard. The rubric’s poor example, therefore, helps to keep poor readers reading poorly. How can we encourage students to explore our chosen texts if our exploration of their texts ends in facile objectivity before it even starts? Part of fostering the art of reading, and the art of writing with it, is “rejecting the preoccupation with some illusory unspecifiable absolute or ‘correct’ reading or ideal reader” (Rosenblatt 140), the notion of a false absolute that rubrics tend to perpetuate no matter how subjectively their cells are written.

Despite any rubric’s reassuring, pseudo-mathematical claim to objectivity, teachers often find that even the same paper graded with the same rubric receives two different – sometimes widely different – scores from two different teachers. A few days ago I received Meagan’s final draft back from the committee that had graded it. The teacher assigned to her essay gave it the lowest possible mark. The mark was without explanation – each of us graded all day and didn’t have time to give feedback – but I have no reason to doubt that the grade was the teacher’s honest attempt at applying the rubric to Meagan’s essay.

In a writers’ workshop, a teacher must model not only writing but also, and just as importantly, reading. Deep revision – and therefore good writing – comes only from someone else’s deep reading. Young writers need deep readers. If a teacher can model the deep reading of a student’s writing, she will, in so doing, tend to help the student grow to give the same close attention to the teacher’s selected texts. Though I’ve never heard anyone else express this relationship, a teacher’s transactional and initially subjective reading of student writing is the foundation for teaching students to read like writers.

 

Works Cited

Calvino, Italo. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993. Print.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998. Print.

Kohn, Alfie. “The Trouble with Rubrics.” English Journal 95.4 (2006): 12-15. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Ed. Susan Naomi Bernstein. Fourth ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 12-26. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.

Wilson, Maja. “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing.” English Journal 96.4 (2007): 62-66. Print.

[1] Not my student’s real name.

My dream Job

3PictureBookScheindlinJobJob is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.

And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).

The idea of Job as theater recurs while reading Scheindlin’s The Book of Job. Scheindlin, for instance, discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:

But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day,
……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)

Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t sharpen them the way Scheindlin does. Scheindlin’s translation also emphasizes how Job’s words feed off those of his friends, an essential component of theater or even plain, old argument. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in the Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.” Scheindlin’s move sharpens the dialogue.

I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As a good rhetorician, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:

“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech,
……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders;
……length of years makes a man perspicacious.”
He has wisdom and power;
……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary
Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary

(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.

Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.

Continue reading