What does it mean to convert teaching into assembly of discussion forums plus creation and delivery of content within these forums within a piece of university-administered “classroom management” software? When do we get back to in-person gatherings of students and teachers? How under such circumstances does one practice a pedagogy of hope? Do we become video friends? Do we record little lectures, each of us seated before the camera-eye atop our laptops and smart phones, prisoners in a new kind of panopticon prison? But who knows? With a little practice, we can launch a jailbreak, a prison strike, a riot. Unless perhaps we use this as a moment to build ourselves up. I suppose it’s fitting that I started my career as a teacher, back all those years ago during training, with a short videotaped lecture on the panopticon. For that is what they’ve built around us with the camera atop the devices from which we work, now that our teaching is to be done online. These conditions have been imposed by fiat down a command chain, regional accrediting bodies the ones cracking the whip. Time to get to it.
Time to head back to work, where remote / distance pedagogy is the new condition, the newly imposed norm, “until further notice.” A friend’s QuickTime lecture, “hot off the press,” as they used to say, sets me thinking about Queer responses to the AIDS crisis, that part of history surfacing again into consciousness. Another friend’s course description evokes Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. Mine, meanwhile, traces a “path of resistance” in American history as manifested in literatures of rebellion across the centuries. Even as we remember trauma, let us remain champions of hope. Think of it in terms of genre. Some raise consciousness; others deflate it. Inboxes can be filled with event cancellations or broadcasts from radio outlaws. Joe Strummer broadcasting from Radio Clash, Felix Guattari broadcasting from Radio Alice in the red Bologna of 1976. Sit outside in early evening, an hour or two before sunset, though, and it’s the same old birdsong, beautiful as ever, cars well in the distance. Do we scale up from this afterwards into tribes? An owl hoots; dogs bark; crows caw; two squirrels work cooperatively in a tree, plucking tufts of evergreen for a nest. Doom is not my thing.
Sunlight brightens on all sides, each of us shining upon one another. Birds, bushes, cars, sirens, air units, snowmelt. Rooftops on one side of the street stand covered still in snow as birds flit in profusion amid trees. My courses encourage spontaneous participation in an ongoing dialogue. Minds come together through exercise of speech and self-organize into a class consciousness.
Huxley is a prophet, and with his final novel Island, he offers us a vision of redemption. Each of us is the island of Pala. Let us work together as allies. Youth for Bernie! There it is: let’s do this! “Uncover honey / where maggots are,” as Charles Olson prompted at the end of his poem “The Kingfishers.” We determine with the genres we teach different kinds of subjects. By assigning utopias rather than dystopias, we arrange for students to confront within themselves stirrings of hope rather than fear.
Students and I in my classes cook together. We become responsible for feeding each other. We feed each other. We are mammals and needn’t apologize. The conversation confronts its own material preconditions. The class inches closer to consciousness of itself as a co-evolving organism of self-determining parts orchestrated through acts of care. As we cook, we talk about shared texts, we listen to music together. We enjoy each other’s company amid sharing of a material and linguistic commons. And it is good.
Literature can be used to educate the whole person. Readings prompt studies of the psyche—studies of authors and characters as well as studies of ourselves. But these studies of selfhood and personhood can lead us—so long as we’re attentive enough, so long as we read carefully enough—from microcosm to macrocosm, from worldview to world. Consciousness of the cosmos and our place in it. They help us build cognitive maps, as Fredric Jameson would say. Intimations of who we are, what we are, when we are, where we are, how we are. Injustices are registered, confronted, acknowledged; we contemplate demands rightly made upon us by the aggrieved across history. Those amid us who are crying, let us comfort them. The maps may have differences, they may emerge for each participant individually, revelation and awakening scaled to each person; yet this awareness is of our commonality, revealed through our interactions as fellow Beings in dialogue over shared texts. As the Western Buddhist Beats who inhabit Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums would say, we recognize operating throughout history a “Brahman”—a common consciousness or common ground of Being manifesting among the particulars of identity and historical circumstance. Taken in aggregate, these manifestations tell a story, however paratactically—a narrative history of which each of us is a part. This recognition of our relationship to history can’t be put into words, exactly, other than by declaring as Charles Olson does in his poem “The Kingfishers,” “This very thing you are” (171).
Here I am, new to parenting, preparing a talk on pedagogy. What do I take as lessons from the one for the other? Both involve sound and space and movement. I dance around the room, whether it be the classroom or the living room, encouraging recognition of conditions of experience held in common, resummoning along the way history as an epic poem recited anew at every moment. In the classroom, there’s some of what Gregory Bateson discusses in Steps To an Ecology of Mind (though it’s there, too, perhaps, in my work as a parent). Spread across the early pages of Bateson’s book are a series of “metalogues”: metaphysical dialogues between a daughter and her father. Bateson defined the metalogue as “a conversation about some problematic subject” (1), though he stipulates that the conversation reflect as well on itself and its structure, hence the “meta.” That, I think, is akin to what I do as a teacher. It’s akin, as well, to what M.C. Richards does in her book Centering. Like Bateson, Richards introduces Centering as “interdisciplinary” — though Bateson says his book earns this description not just by exchanging information between and across pairs of disciplines “but in discovering patterns common to many.” The worlds rendered by the disciplines fall short of the one known by holists like Richards and Bateson.
The backs of my hands above my knuckles are chapped from the cool winter air, so I apply lotion. Can self-care of that sort act by law of correspondence upon the circle, the cosmos, the whole? Is that what was meant by books like Getting It Together and Centering? Is that what M.C. Richards sought at Black Mountain College? How does one “center”? Can it mean gifting oneself and the others with which one lives one’s attention and love through dance and play? I picture myself and my daughter as Luke and Yoda, the one carrying the other. Time to teach, time to practice pedagogy, each teaching each. I imagine my Moby as the garb of a Jedi. What do I say to F. to help her find her way? Perhaps I should read aloud to her the passage from Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas quoted at the start of Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America. Show her the “half-hid warp,” the threads of friendship, intense and loving comradeship, the milk of human kindness. Read Ginsberg’s “Beginning of a Poem of These States” in light of the Black Snake or Zuzeca Sapa prophecy of the Oceti Sakowin. Note for the sake of remembrance via time capsule the lovely sounds F. makes at four weeks of age (or there about) while breastfeeding: lip-smacking exhalations, small gasps of pleasure, relieved sighs.
How might the insights of West Coast humanistic psychologists of the 60s and 70s inform our work today as educators? How do we grow together? How do we help each other self-actualize? By that term, the humanists of the 60s and 70s meant a variety of things: realizing hopes and aspirations, exercising full potential, living joyfully, gratefully, lovingly, practicing therapy, repairing the traumas we carry with us as personal and collective bodies, finding happiness, living well. Those who report having achieved peak-experiences, those who seem to have begun to self-actualize, don’t shrivel up into themselves, claimed theorists like Maslow. Rather, they become better adjusted, less begrudging comrades. They join together with companions, forming co-evolving communities committed to giving and receiving care. Look at the support networks that form among mothers. Friends and acquaintances near and far have come to our aid of late, passing along boxloads of hand-me-downs: maternity wear, baby gear, short-sleeve onesies, long-sleeve onesies, pajamas, burp cloths, the works. We feel like characters from the Equals song, “Michael and the Slipper Tree,” or Olu Dara’s “Okra.”
Let us hold this experience near to us as we return to our classrooms. Carl Rogers suggested one model for applying the principles of humanistic psychology to education in his 1969 essay “Freedom to Learn.” And some of these principles informed experiments with encounter groups and sensitivity training sessions at places like Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I sit on the top step of my front stoop after dark, diffusing momentarily into imaginative union with the sounds of the night, a lush chorus of locusts and crickets. Afterwards I feel recharged, replenished, senses open, receptive. I thumb through Ali Smith’s introduction to Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet astounded. Hardt and Negri’s Assembly takes shape soon thereafter, pages propped open, their words released into consciousness with another sturdy thumbs up.
Time to help people live creatively. Help them change the game. Something’s happening, something wonderful and unprecedented. The reddest rose unfolds. I’ve somehow through practice manifested in my students’ lives opportunities to live collectively and spontaneously, with minimal script or plan, but for the fact that our study of literature has been training us for this performance since our first days of class, however little we may have been conscious of that collective purpose at the time. A certain set of desires to live differently have intersected and begun to fructuate.