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:


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


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.

Time for this

The teachers in our school district voted to extend the summer a little bit in exchange for having an entire fortnight off for Christmas. I’m glad. Two weeks away from school, even while grading and planning a lot, feels like a real vacation. Suddenly, there’s time for the likes of twelve-spice Cincinnati chili. Here it simmers on our rented condo’s gas stove before I stir in the spices.

Twelve days of Lax-mas


This month, our school hosted a Progoff Intensive Journal Workshop. One workshop exercise involved writing a dialog between each participant and someone who has influenced him. I chose Bob Lax, who gave up and moved to Patmos to wait and write.

Instead of writing a dialog, however, I found myself writing a dozen poem-like things. I may be in the same place as I was eight years ago when I wrote a few Lax-inspired pieces.

This week, in a different kind of meeting, I tooled around with my newest Lax-inspired things, making lots of revisions. Some people with artistic training get through meetings in a similar way with doodles, of course, engaging their eye to egg on their ear.

Lax, though, missed all memos, made no meetings, and (maybe as a consequence) made few revisions to his own poems. They came out of him after long waits, and whole as eggs.

Poet Dave Bonta came up with “poem-like things” to describe some of his own work. I haven’t written poems, much less poem-like things, in years. Dave also occasionally compares writing poems to having bowel movements. Perhaps, then, I should call these my Laxatives.

I’ve posted my first four; the rest will come in December.

What I mean by sharing

It’s Sunday morning, and it’s 34 degrees outside. I haven’t turned on the air conditioning in over a month, and I’ve yet to turn on the heat since we moved here. Of course, the weather has been fairly moderate. But in the condo now it’s 67 degrees, the lowest it’s ever been in here. The president asked us to keep our thermostats in the winter at 68, so I’m doing him one degree better. (It was President Nixon, admittedly, but I don’t believe his successors ever rescinded the request.)

My theory is that the units around us are paying for our heating and cooling. They moderate our quarters’ temperature since we adjoin them at two sides and at the ceiling. Sad to say, we have our own water heater. And when Victoria wakes up, she may make me try out the heat. Maybe she’ll sleep late — its supposed to get into the 50’s today — or maybe I’ll turn on that lamp against the thermostat.

It’s our first fall in a condo. So far, so good. As my fellow boomer and new condo resident Abby Imus said on the front page of today’s Washington Post, “There’s not one thing I miss about my house.”

The story of how I realized something (Part 1)

The full title would be “the story of how I realized something while reading Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, together, eventually, with an exposition of that something.”

Footnote: It is not just the realization. Every honest exposition is part narrative, and every narrative needs its setting. These are things I believe, by which I mean, perhaps ironically, things that require no narrative, truths that transcend all narrative, principles that emanate from a stillness so entire that narrative explodes in their presence by virtue of the stillness’s virtue still emanating from them as they themselves emanate from that stillness, and the talebearer must, to recover his “and then’s” and and “and then’s,” round up the receding stars of his narrative with a stardog or chase them down with a net, whichever is more to the task. End of footnote.


Just a note

We’re moving next month, I’m teaching at a new school this fall, and I started a graduate program in composition studies today.

The move isn’t far, but it’s big. We’re moving a few miles west to Leesburg, a lot closer to my new high school. But we’re moving from our single-family house where we’ve lived for seventeen years to a one-bedroom condo, which we’ll rent for at least a year. We feel like moving is opening our arms to whatever comes next.

Locke, Lee, and bitter, dark cocoa

We are starting a three-day weekend by hanging out. Victoria and I have returned home from our respective gyms. I have been perfecting my hot chocolate. I use 2% milk and Hershey’s “Special Dark” cocoa powder. I work from Hershey’s standard recipe, doubling the chocolate, cutting the sugar by 87%, substituting stevia1 for that sugar, and doubling the vanilla.2 Thick and, from what Victoria tells me, bitter. Delicious.

I’m reading three books right now, but mostly two biographies, one of John Locke, which I read from a book by night, and the other of Robert E. Lee, of which I “read” an unabridged recording by day. I’m enjoying both, though I occasionally conflate their lives and get the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries mixed up. Well, the Psalmist says that “the night and the day are both alike to thee.”

The Locke writer, Maurice Cranston, has little sense of narrative, but he’s English, has a wry wit, and wrote the year I was born, so I like the different feel of the book. The Lee writer, Michael Korda, seems fair to Robert and Mary and loves to point out Robert’s humor and mildly flirtatious way with women. I must say that it’s difficult to bring either man to life as much as I admire them. Locke was secretive by nature, making any written mention of his romantic interests in code and destroying almost all of his political letters. I guess the letter-burning is understandable, given the tumultuous English seventeenth century. Lee, of course, was just plain shut-mouthed, and he seemed to do all he could not to become his garrulous, querulous father, “Light Horse” Harry Lee.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that neither Locke nor Lee cared much for reading fiction. West Point forbad reading fiction while Lee was there, though he later won over his beloved Mary Anna Custis’s mother by reading to the two of them from Anne of Geierstein, Sir Walter Scott’s then-latest romance.

I do wish Lee, an avid nonfiction reader, had read Locke. The Civil War might not have lasted so long. Of course, had the Union won quickly, we might be living still with constitutionally sanctioned slavery.

  1. If you’re going to try stevia, I’d suggest Stevita’s “Spoonable” packets from a box. Other brands sell stevia mixed with artificial sweeteners and label it as stevia, and even Stevita does the same with one of its other products.
  2. So without reference to Hershey’s recipe, here’s mine: 1 cup hot (but never boiling, mind you) 2% milk, 4 tbsp. Hershey’s “Special Dark” cocoa powder, 1 packet Stevita stevia, 1/2 tsp. vanilla. If you don’t have a good hand blender, you’ll want to mix the dry ingredients first and slowly add the milk and vanilla while constantly stirring. This keeps you from drinking clumps of powder.