This year’s reads, Voegelin in particular

I met a few writers this year who seem to understand who I am and encouraged me in the direction I’m heading. Chief among them is the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin.

Eric Voegelin

Voegelin is considered a conservative political philosopher; in fact, Mark Lilla introduced me to Voegelin through an essay dedicated to him in Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, published last year. What initially impressed me about Voegelin was Lilla’s account of Voegelin’s conversion of sorts. Here’s Lilla’s summary of his account of Voegelin’s conversion from political reaction: “his historical nostalgia did not survive the assault of his limitless curiosity” (26).

Lilla places Voegelin with political philosophers, left and right, who fled Hitler, such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, philosophers who believed that “it was transformations in Western thinking that had prepared the unthinkable, and that a new intellectual path had to be found before a political one could be.” Voegelin’s thinking initially wasn’t much different from others Lilla labels as reactionaries – Voegelin believed that the bifurcation of religion and government that developed after the Middle Ages gave rise to the politically religious qualities to Fascism, Marxism, and nationalism – and he won followers among American conservatives for this analysis detailed in his earlier books.

These conservatives tended to overlook Voegelin’s views about what came before the rise of modernism (Christianity was at fault for the bifurcation of religion and government) and what should come after (he did not call for any kind of religious nationalism) (31 – 32). But his conversion, which I’ll attempt to explain shortly, left them feeling betrayed.

Lilla’s retreat from a fall-and-restoration narrative mirrors my own late-in-life distaste for so-called prophetic narratives of the political fundamentalism of some Christians and Muslims, as well as the historical narratives of Marxism, Fascism, and other –isms. All such movements wish to “immanentize the eschaton”— Voegelin’s most famous expression – that is, they wish to bring on a kind of millennium or end of history in the political here and now. (Shakespeare’s Macbeth is, to me, primarily a warning against immanentizing the eschaton.)

Voegelin’s concerns about hastening the end of history start early in his writings, but after his conversion he understood his own unwitting participation in such a project. His newer view of history and the future is more like my own: it is mysterious in both a religious sense (“a field where the divine and human meet,” as Lilla puts it) and in a categorical sense (“a mystery in the process of revelation,” as Voegelin puts it) (39).

Was Voegelin’s conversion more than simply a philosophical one? Yes and no, I think. I got a sense of his conversion when I started reading the 1977 English translation by Gerhart Niemeyer of Voegelin’s 1966 book Anamnesis, a short and dense book (well, all of his books are dense) of his more experimental writings from 1943 through 1977 (the English translation includes two essays written since the 1966 original). Anamnesis reads like a mashup of Samuel von Pufendorf and St. John of the Cross – political theory not just in mystical terms but understood only as a form of mysticism. And the entry to this mysticism is both a religious and philosophical conversion, which I assume Voegelin must have experienced.

Voegelin in Anamnesis understands Aristotle’s insistence on “what is right by nature” to come not from the adherence to “a set of external, immutable propositions” but from asking the spoudaios – a mature man or, more generally, “existentially the right order of man.” Man does not become rightly ordered through adhering to ethical norms but through “the permeability through the movement of being, i.e., the openness of man for the divine; the openness in turn is not a proposition about something but an event . . .” (65). Such language suggests that the “event” involves the transformation of the inner man, the end of many religious faiths. This is why I am bold enough to use the word conversion to describe Voegelin’s approach.

Consider the initial stages in this conversion “toward the divine ground of existence”: attraction from the divine, a desire to know about the ground, a questioning in confusion, and a consciousness of ignorance (97). These are steps towards religious conversion, not of the initial kind to a set of religious tenets but of a later kind described by John of the Cross as the night of sense – one that leads to transformation.

The reason I answered “yes and no” to my question regarding the nature of Voegelin’s conversion – whether it was “more than simply a philsosophical one” – is that, for Voegelin, philosophy as understood by Plato and Aristotle is a kind of mysticism:

Hence, philosophy in the classic sense is not a body of “ideas” or “opinions” about the divine ground dispensed by a person who calls himself a “philosopher,” but a man’s responsive pursuit of his questioning unrest to the divine source that has aroused it. (96)

Even though we have no biographical evidence that Voegelin adhered to any creed or indeed believed in a personal god, his philosophy is based in large part on the notion of mystical transformation.

Philosophy, understood mystically, is one such means to the ground of being; Voegelin refers to it as “the event of philosophy as flowing presence” (133). Another comes courtesy of the Ecumenic Age (the eponym for Voegelin’s fourth installment of Order and History with its mea culpa that Lilla finds exemplary), which makes this experience available to all. During the age of the first empires, conquering nations disrupted the fixed, tribal cosmos of smaller civilizations, causing the smaller civilizations’ inhabitants to question their received understanding of the way the world worked. The clash of myths accelerated the questioning and helped the spread of Christianity, which offered a beginning and a beyond that accounted for more than that of the original culture. Here we are introduced to how this “differentiation” – this movement from a fixed cosmos and its myths to the ground of being that underwrites all of it – moves from an individual to a culture.

But the movement from individual to culture – the idea that the ground of being affects individuals first and cultures second – is significant for political theory. History is built on individuals’ movements to the ground; therefore, “all ‘philosophies of history,’ which hypostatize society or history as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false” (114). Voegelin refers, of course, primarily to Hegel and secondarily to Marx. History cannot be understood as “an object that could be known ‘intersubjectively’ and thus would present about the same phenomenal image to everyone.” Instead – and here Voegelin sounds like a Doctor of the Church – the tension in being that becomes history

. . . must be experienced personally and [it] therefore presents itself in a manifold of experiential modes on the scales of compactness and differentiation, of transparency and obliqueness, of anxiety and faith, of libio dominandi and charity, of despair and hope, of acquiescence and rebellion, humility and defiance, opening and closing oneself, apostasy and return, promethean revolt and fear of God, joy of life and contemptus mundi. (133)

In moving towards the ground of being, we live in the metaxy, the “’in between,’ in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present” (133).

I feel as if I’ve been searching in the dark for years, but Voegelin and other authors I’ve read this year (particularly Philip Gorski and Jonathan Haidt) have exposed me to ideas similar to my own, only far more developed or researched. Voegelin’s philosophy has affirmed so much of what I’ve come to understand almost intuitively about politics and mysticism to this point beyond just, you know, avoiding the immanentization of the eschaton. Here are six ways I’ve felt affirmed by Voegelin.

First, the Equality Clause’s “all men are created equal” is a proposition in the historical sense but is primarily relational and secondarily functional in the religious and political sense, based as it is on the hierarchy among God, man, and nature (one way of understanding Voegelin’s “existentially right order of man”). Voegelin here summarizes his historiography:

. . . history is not a field of indifferently objective materials from which we may select some according to arbitrary criteria, in order to “construct” a tableau of history. Rather, history is constituted by consciousness, so the logos of consciousness decides what is and what is not historically relevant. Be it noted especially that the time in which history constitutes itself is not that of the external world, in which the somatically founded life of man leaves its traces, bu rather the inner dimension of consciousness of desire and search after the ground. Since, regarding this dimension, all men are equal, the field of history is always universally human, even if only a relatively small sector of the philosophers’ position would be materially known. (158)

History, despite uneven recordings based on inequality (a focus on leaders, inventions, or wars, for instance) is based on consciousness, which in turn means on a search for the divine ground thanks to mankind’s ontological equality.

Second, the individual must precede the culture politically. The tension in a healthy society stems from what Reinhold Niebuhr describes in The Irony of American History as an individual’s inability to find fulfillment without her society, while her experience teaches her also that she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society” (62). What came first, if you’ll indulge me, the chicken or the roost? Insofar as my question is an analogy to political theory, the chicken. While we are social animals, our political standing must be our individual standing before God as pictured in Locke’s state of nature or in other accounts that comport with the Hebrew story of Adam’s creation and his initial relationship with God alone.1 Otherwise, a government eventually ceases to recognize our status as children of God and even our humanity.

Third, our individual repentance and transformation (what I call the “transformation of the religious” as opposed to “religious transformation”) is the only means to meaningful political change. My extensive reading of James Baldwin three years ago convinced me of this mystery, but Voegelin gives me a more systematized way of understanding it.

Fourth, a kind of political religion based on an individual’s movement to the ground of being amounts to a middle way between today’s nationalism and today’s liberalism. The fight between these forces that have largely defined modernity has led to some gains but has been largely futile:

If one, however, simply follows rebellion as a guideline, one finds the desire for knowledge again blocked, for the rebellion aims not directly at the reality of knowledge but at its forms of decay, i.e., against the theological and metaphysical dogmatisms. These older dogmatisms, which we first encounter as we turn around, are closer to reality than the rebellion against the ground, even though they have the character of a parekbasis. We must not forget, though, that they, too, suffer from a kind of loss of reality which has provoked the ideological rebellion since the eighteenth century, and that, on the other hand, the rebellion has freed socially effective areas of the world, society, and history that the social oppression of orthodoxy sought to keep under cover. (188)

The increasing focus by these combatants on the evils their opposites present shows how ineffectual either side’s eventual victory would be toward healing our society.

Fifth, a movement to the divine ground, much like a religious conversion, can tempt those newly enlightened to impose their understanding on others in the political realm:

The differentiating experience . . . can be so intensive that the man to whom it occurs feels transformed into a new being. The new image of the world resulting from the experience can be misunderstood as a new world; and the process of change itself can turn into a structural datum of reality that can be extrapolated into the future. (166)

(True, immanentization of the eschaton is an example of this.) Voegelin’s warnings along these lines are worked out in greater detail in a section of the introduction to The Ecumenic Age called, “The Deformation of Philosophy into Doctrine” (36 – 43). Political religion is a tricky thing, but the virtue most associated with a proper approach is moderation. (Moderation, in fact, is the chief political virtue of a proper eschatology. Consider this koan-like adage from St. Paul  in Philippians: “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” – KJV. I also like Young’s: “Let your forbearance . . .”) As Gorski points out, many people confuse civil religion with religious nationalism and indiscriminately want shut of both (18 – 21).

Sixth, a proper political religion exists, it has been helpful (even salvific, if you will) at critical times in American history, and it is best exemplified by the life and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln turned to the past not in reaction (i.e., in a call for a return to a golden age) but as a means of reinterpreting the past in language familiar to a culture. Voegelin, who returns again and again to the language by which differentiation is expressed to those still in the cosmic (early) stage of movement to the ground, puts it this way:

The human universality of the desiring and searching participation in the ground results further in the equivalence in the symbolisms in which the consciousness of the ground is expressed. By equivalence I mean the fact that all experiences of the ground are in like manner experiences of participation even though they may differ considerably from each other on the scales of compactness and differentiation of finding and missing the ground. The equivalence of the symbols thrown up in the stream of participation, finally, leads to the loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past, since they express phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself. (158 – 159)

In Lincoln’s case, this “loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past” chiefly means his elucidations of the relative roles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he likens to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, respectively – “phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself” – as Lincoln reinterprets the Equality Clause as the “sheet anchor of American republicanism.” With that ontological anchor, America may yet differentiate itself from a compact, slave society into one that lives out a kind of polity closer to the ground of being accessible to individuals within that polity.

(A good companion to Voegelin is Ted V. McAllister’s book Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.)

Here are the books I’ve read this year, listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.

Berman, Marshall. The Politics of Authenticity.

Bonta, Dave. Ice Mountain: An Elegy.

Boser, Urlich. Learn Better. (Read 2 times)

Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton.

Cole, Teju. Blind Spot.

Durant, Will and Ariel. The Age of Reason Begins: A History of Eurpoean Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558 – 1648.

Frankin, Al. Al Frankin, Giant of the Senate.

Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Read 2 times)

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Knoll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Lilla, Mark. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.

McAllister, Ted V. Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.

McInerney, Jeremy. The Age of Pericles (Great Courses Lecture Series).

Mussolini, Benito. The Doctrine of Facism.

O’Brian, Patrick. 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey.

O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Commodore. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Hundred Days. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Ionian Mission. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Nutmeg of Consolation. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Reverse of the Medal. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Thirteen-Gun Salute. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Truelove. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. (My fourth read.)

O’Brian, Patrick. Treason’s Harbour. (My fourth read.)

O’Donnell, William E. Culture is Everything. (Read 2 times)

Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago.

Prothero, Stephen. Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): A History of the Religious Battles that define Amerian from jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Read for the umpteenth time)

Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. (Read for the umpteenth time)

Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis.

Volker, Ulrich. Hitler: Ascent, 1889 – 1939.

Waldman, Michael. The Fight to Vote.

Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.

  1. To this agrees Hannah Arendt, writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Men are unequal according to their natural origin, their different organization, and fate in history. Their equality is an equality of rights only, that is, an equality of human purpose; yet behind this equality of human purpose lies, according to Jewish-Christian tradition, another equality, expressed in the concept of one common origin beyond human history, human nature, and human purpose— the common origin in the mythical, unidentifiable Man who alone is God’s creation. This divine origin is the metaphysical concept on which the political equality of purpose may be based, the purpose of establishing mankind on earth. Nineteenth-century positivism and progressivism perverted this purpose of human equality when they set out to demonstrate what cannot be demonstrated, namely, that men are equal by nature and different only by history and circumstances, so that they can be equalized not by rights, but by circumstances and education. Nationalism and its concept of a ‘national mission’ perverted the national concept of mankind as a family of nations into a hierarchical structure where differences of history and organization were misinterpreted as differences between men, residing in natural origin. Racism, which denied the common origin of man and repudiated the common purpose of establishing humanity, introduced the concept of the divine origin of one people as contrasted with all others, thereby covering the temporary and changeable product of human endeavor with a pseudomystical cloud of divine eternity and finality.”

Masking

When Michael would return from a long trip, he’d often offer the most cursory account of it. That’s all we’d get for weeks. “I’m not ready to talk about it.” He’d talk around it, though, until he had processed his travels enough to understand and contextualize them. Then he’d talk about the trip in that context.

I think I do that sometimes with books. I’m reading a book I find I don’t care to talk about. My reading of it is like an important, long trip that could change my perspective. I’m also reading (rereading, it so happens) another book, though, that I process another way: I talk and write about it. That “outer” book may be part of my means of processing the “inner” book. At some point, the “outer” book could become a setting, and the “inner” book a stone.

Per cola et commata

3PictureTwachtmanWinterSmFinally finished volume one of Luke. My chief devotional was Joseph Fitzmyer’s part of the Anchor Bible, but for me over several months it was my anchor text, the text I’d pick up and drop daily so the currents of other texts wouldn’t get me lost.

The chief candidate for my new anchor text was last owned by Rev. Ed Coleman of Nashville’s Christ Church Cathedral. It was first owned by Tom — his last name doesn’t appear in the book — who received it as Christmas gift from John and (I think) Teasie in 1966, the year the book was published. I don’t know how Rev. Coleman got the book or if he knows Ed. And I? I got the book from a bookseller. The book itself is a hardbound copy of Edmond Bonin’s translation of Louis Evely’s That Man Is You. Besides the handwriting that informed me about the previous owners, the book had no marks before I started in on it today.

I discovered the work on my mother’s devotional shelf when I visited my parents over Christmas. One page I randomly turned to spoke to me in my discouragement about my writing. The discouragement felt vaguely productive. It felt like a winter field with the plow and scythe put up somewhere in the shed. Kind of like a Twachtman painting, or at least of the one I enjoy at the Phillips. It’s as if Twachtman in all that snow couldn’t farm; all he could do was paint.

God alone knows
………..what He expects of us,
………..what response He’s looking for
………..and how many people’s destinies depend on ours. (128)

Evely’s book is sharpening that picture.

Bonin puts Evely’s prose in verse. Bonin says, though, that he has disposed the text in “sense lines”:

Based on the ancient method of pronging prose per cola et commata, this sense-line arrangement throws into greater relief the development, co-ordination and subordination of ideas, emphasizes significant parallelism and antithesis, and permits one to isolate key words. (v)

According to Dianne Tillotsonper cola et commata facilitates reading out loud:

Instead of filling up the page with continuous text, the line breaks reflect the way in which the text should be read aloud.

Tillotson describes other devices in medieval texts to the same purpose, and then says of them all:

This text is not designed for the mindless recitation of spelled-out syllables and words. It is coded for he projection of meaning.

Bonin’s approach is a step past John Anthony McGuckin’s in his Book of Mystical Chapters. McGuckin breaks monastic aphorisms into verses, but by aligning all lines to the left margin, he relies only on line breaks to augment sense and reflection. Bonin’s work appears more like the sentence mapping middle school teachers often require to learn syntax.

Per cola et commata may give me a new way into Charles Wright’s poetry. His lines are even more loosely anchored to the left margin than Bonin’s take on Evely, and the placement does seem “coded for the projection of meaning.” Wright’s verse sails on a spirituality that, even more with his unmoored lines, carries an ancient salt in its spray.

Image: John Henry Twachtman’s Winter at the Phillips Collection.

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.

The bad teacher

3PictureHelenKellerCenturyCoverA teacher must be selfish. While her classroom must be something other than her private laboratory, it must also be her private laboratory. In fact, her classroom cannot be something other than her private laboratory – something dynamic and good other than her private laboratory, I mean – unless it is also her private laboratory.

She must be selfish not because she will be more dynamic for it. I’m done with dynamic teachers: learning is dynamic enough. She must be selfish because she must be awake.

This past summer I learned more about why I teach metaphor the way I do. I do not say that I learned how to teach metaphor better. Being awake with my students over past few years taught me that. The three graduate composition courses I took this summer were flexible enough for me to walk my own intellectual paths, and one of my paths was metaphor.

Here’s what I learned, teaching. I want my students to write with metaphors, particularly implied metaphors. Stealing from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, I ask my students to list ten nouns in one column and ten cooking verbs in another. They combine them. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth” is one of Goldberg’s combinations (87 – 88).

I want to show my students why metaphors work, so I break down how I think we experience them. Take Paul’s aphoristic implied metaphor “the letter kills.” First we’re in shock: letters can’t kill. Then we see that the writer speaks metaphorically. We’re relieved and open to him again, and we make the connection between sign and signified. The final stage of experiencing metaphor is meditative and results in our greater understanding of the metaphor’s subject – in this case, the written word.

I illustrate my three stages of metaphor with a viewing of “Metaphor,” a British ad for Tango, the European soft drink. An office manager watches as his Tango-sipping employee gets hosed by a fireman, cooled by a palm-wielding Polynesian, and dumped with ice by an Eskimo. She explains to the manager that the fireman, Polynesian, and Eskimo are “not really here. They’re just a metaphor.” She takes another sip, and the three repeat their actions, just as we’d reread a metaphor at this stage. By the end of the ad, the manager and the viewer have, presumably, a greater appreciation for Tango’s capacity for refreshment by having gone through the three stages of experiencing metaphor.

I learned this summer that, as Ann Berthoff puts it, “meanings are not elements but relationships” (Berthoff, Sense 36). She means that metaphors, analogies, allegories – something and something else, however they relate – are how we learn anything (Berthoff, Mysterious 129 – 131). The novelist and theorist Walker Percy equates metaphor with naming and therefore with the onset of language in general. He discovers “the delta factor” – the way we humans learn – from Helen Keller’s transformational moment at the pump house, the moment when she associates the water flowing over her hand with the word “water” that Anne Sullivan spells onto her other hand. Keller is seven, and her more-self-conscious age allows her the metacognition most two-year-olds can’t muster, though they learn speech the same way. Percy goes so far as to claim that Keller discovers what separated us from the beasts long ago: “the spark jumped, language was born, the brain flowered with words, and man became man” (Percy 42). Keller discovers how we make meaning, and how we became human.

Bertoff and Percy help me see how I often make meaning. I feel my way toward it in the classroom. Then I read and write to understand what I start to teach.

They also help me see what I’ve been up to these last few years. In teaching metaphor, I’ve been unconsciously extending to education what I had been learning in other fields. Over the past decade I had learned to put the reader at the center of Constitutional, biblical, and literary interpretation. Without the reader and the experience and spirit that animate him, we misconstrue text. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. We make meaning; we don’t receive it predigested from our teachers. The reader is the fulcrum of meaning-making, as Louise Rosenblatt posits in her transactional theory, and not an afterthought, as in New Criticism and structuralism. In the classroom, I had felt my way to how metaphor models this understanding. This summer, I merely fleshed it out.

The classroom had been my lab, then, and the papers I wrote this summer were my belated lab reports.

You can see Berthoff working the same way I prefer to – classroom as personal lab – but in the other direction. She theorizes first. Then, steeped in Charles Pierce’s triadic semiotics and I. A. Richards’s triadic rhetorical theory, she writes a freshman composition textbook, Forming, Thinking, Writing, as a means of testing her theory in the classroom. Forming is credited with introducing the world to the dialectical notebook, a tool I’m using in my own dual enrollment composition class. My students are making meaning, discovering how much they have to say through their examinations of overlooked organic objects, such as plums and sprigs.

I’ve read four of Bertoff’s books, so I can see where her textbook and classroom-as-laboratory fit in her intellectual and spiritual journey.

Bertoff teaches me that even some textbooks should be selfish, like teachers. Students should hear some of their authors think (we call it “voice”), and they should watch their teachers learn. Composition teachers may wish to journal beside their students and model their messy rough drafts. They may wish to send their classroom-generated writing to publishers, just as they may ask their students to do with their own writing.

Our selfishness in our professional practice can make us seem somewhat unprofessional, I admit. But I think one can be too professional. I practiced law before I began teaching, and sometimes I was my most professional in my sleep. On three or four occasions, I counseled in my sleep. I don’t mean that I was in bed asleep, dreaming. I was in my law office with my eyes open but lulled by my own voice into dreaming. Twice I fell asleep telling clients what to expect at their depositions and how, in general terms, to answer questions there. I’ve always wondered if those clients knew that I was talking to them in my sleep. My advice was necessary, honed, and rote. And I was learning nothing.

Teachers, like lawyers, must be conscious. Perhaps they should be conscious first of what teaching school has the misfortune to supersede – apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is the better model because we can teach only in the context of our struggle to work at our calling. Apprenticeship is the better model because we are the better models. Discipleship is at the center of apprenticeship because our struggle is at the center of our callings.

Classrooms are inherently silly.1 They don’t call, and they betray no signs of a calling. Teachers return each August to redeem them a little, to cover over the walls and the confinement. To rearrange the desks, at least. And many of them do silly work for maybe twenty hours a week as the price for spending at least twice as many hours on the important parts of teaching, including the selfish part.

I’ve heard an administrator call some teachers selfish, teachers who resist teaching in lockstep, teachers who lose sleep at night, working extra hours to keep from teaching in their sleep. They know that covering material for the sake of tests leads, metaphorically speaking, to dropping the fish predigested into their babies’ beaks. It is education completely stripped of apprenticeship. It is a bland, dyadic misapprehension of learning, and of what it means to be human.

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.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer within. Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Print.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Helen Keller, 1880-1968.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

“Tango Clear Metaphor TV Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

  1.  My view about a classroom’s inherent silliness may seem to denigrate my own profession. It doesn’t. I’ve come to believe that we teachers can’t teach well unless we know what we’re up against. Worse than the current public policy and budget cuts is the classroom – or, rather, what the classroom symbolizes and reinforces. Our educational system trains students to act like consumers receiving an “educational package” and not like sovereign individuals discovering things for themselves, to use Percy’s distinction. The classroom’s four walls are part of the package: the sonnet, for instance – Percy’s example closest to my own field – “is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators for some reason believe to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins – these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves” (57). We struggle against a centuries-old mindset reinforced by the classroom – the environment and the system. Our struggle is to guide a student into his or her own sovereignty. Someone making a genuine discovery “is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation. He . . . could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife” (57 – 58). But a student’s sovereignty over his or her own education is impractical, given our educational system, as well as essential. Thankfully, some districts and schools, including my own – and, more importantly, a great many teachers – are taking steps to avoid, to an extent permitted by the environment, “the educator’s direct presentation of the object” (59). Teachers may wish to model genuine discovery as a necessary but insufficient step toward returning sovereignty to students; hence, the personal laboratory.

A century of slow reading

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 1.25.09 PMA few years ago, John Locke got me interested in the 17th century, and I’ve been reading about it off and on ever since. I think I’m understanding part of the draw. Here’s Professor Alan Charles Kors from the first lecture in his Teaching Company series The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries:

The thinking group is small. In a subsistence economy, very few are freed from labor to study and to think. But travel is expensive and dangerous, paintings few, there are no media, and one’s window on other times, places, and minds — one’s escape from one’s own life — is the text. The book. And people who could read focused on the book with an intensity difficult to imagine today. They loved close reading and logical argument and took pride in erudition and formal thought. That will be our window onto early modern culture: their texts, the debates around those texts, and, dramatically, the consequences around the debates.

Here’s Anna Beer from her book Milton: Poet Pamphleteer, and Patriot:

Having acquired a new book, John would adopt an intensely scholarly approach to his reading. His edition of one of his favorite writers, the Greek playwright Euripides . . . is annotated within an inch of its life . . . John made notes on hundreds of the pages and then added side notes so that he could find certain passages more easily. Tellingly, he also made corrections and comments in a number of places, and even added many new references to the index, all written into the book in extremely neat handwriting. (63)

[Photo by Provenance Online Project. Used by permission.]

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.

Enjambed

DearMeFrontCover“Enjambed” sounds like “jammed,” as when I jam my toe. And there is the feeling, in enjambment, of a sentence smashed into verse, scrunched against an arbitrary margin, particularly if that margin, as in much free verse, has no rhyme scheme or meter to make itself more visible or justifiable.

But enjambment can bring to sight other sounds concealed in a sentence. It can spot consonance and assonance hunched behind a rhyme’s garish robes. It can hear some rhythms that don’t want to make it to meter.

And enjambment stretches as much as it squeezes.

I’ve had, lately, in the back of my mind, something I wrote a dozen years ago, a paragraph from a short devotional that helped me get through an identity crisis. I wrote it out in longhand again this morning. Then I slowed it down some more by writing it as verse.

You had a mental
image of God
in a storage room, looking
for a vessel.
He found you
in a corner, piled up
with a lot of other
stuff, and you

were covered
with moss and grime.
God said, “How
about this one? He
has always wanted me
to use him.” And he

began to clean
you for his
service. You became
thankful.

I found parallel participial phrases, one beginning with “looking” and the other with “piled.” Enjambment’s part and parcel is the premium real estate available just before a line break. At some level, a line’s last word gets the last word.

That last word is where enjambment’s pull counters its push. Consider the split I made in the noun phrase “other stuff.” For a hair second, “other” becomes a noun, a more philosophical, metaphysical being. And, further down, “became,” for a moment, becomes its own object. But we read on because our ears can’t believe their eyes. “Other” resolves into an adjective again, “became” into a linking verb again. But “became” — the unlinked “became” — was the point of my book, and of my identity crisis, too.

We read on also because our elementary teachers told us not to pause at enjambments, but to read for syntax only. And I suppose that’s good advice. But just as ears have eyes, so eyes have ears, big as an elephant’s, that never forget those hair seconds.