Monday, 29 November 2010

Like coleslaw wearing a seatbelt

The title to this post is taken from a translation we discussed today in my writing workshop, which I have written about here before none too rosily.  The coleslaw wasn't intended to be wearing a seatbelt, of course, but this is the kind of thing that happens in the absence of punctuation and sensible line breaks.  I don't intend to criticize the translation as a whole, actually; I only bring it up because in my half-crazed state of mind, as I waited eagerly for our last class session to end, this particular image struck me as plausibly symbolic for the way our class has gone this semester.  The seatbelt is the safe harness of legitimacy surrounding the class -- the reputation of the university and the creative writing program, the rigorous-sounding title of the course, the vaunted credentials of the professor.  The coleslaw is is the gloppy, disorganized, unglamorous, and totally unappealing reality inside the classroom, whose messy, sub-par reality -- one would hope -- cannot be held in place long despite the seatbelt's best efforts.

I hope my course evaluation, which I filled out as thoroughly as time constraints allowed at the conclusion of our class, will be part of the oozing to light of the past-date coleslaw of the workshop system at my university, but I doubt that this will be the case.  I am not naive enough to think that a professor who has survived for decades presumably doing exactly what he has done in our class (teaching philosophy is closely enough tied to one's personal character that it rarely changes significantly over the years, I suspect)  is likely to be ousted or even reprimanded thanks to a single scathing evaluation .  And single it will be:  I was surprised that I was the only student in the class apparently to take the evaluation seriously.  The others rushed out of the room under a minute after receiving the form, except for the one student assigned to collect them all and take turn them in, so I then found myself in the position of having to make this student wait for me while I spent whole five minutes or so saying my piece about what a disappointment the class and its professor have been.  I could have spent an hour, but for all the good it would have done, maybe it was a better use of my time to wrap up in short order and go meet up with the lovely person I care so very much more about than any of that nonsense.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

How I spend my light

I got something of an early Thanksgiving present on Monday from a professor who handed out a copy of Milton's Sonnet 19 to the class in a packet of poetry to be read over the break:

When I consider how my light is spent,
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite. 
It is silly, on the one hand, to say that I instantly related to this poem:  as I found out after doing a bit of reading on it, Milton wrote this about his own blindness -- the literal loss of his light.  But it reads equally well as a meditation on the frustration that comes with feeling an inability to do everything one wants to do, feels capable of doing and called to do.  When I read the poem, I was especially full of this kind of frustration (which, if I'm being honest, is never far away), and its conclusion gave me some peace by re-orienting me by the proper way to cope with this feeling:  realizing that the best we can each strive for is to use our individual capacities in a manner pleasing to God -- which could just as well be through standing and waiting as through struggling and striving.

 I'm reminded of this on this Thanksgiving day, with the family laid low by sickness and forced to abandon our plans and instead stand -- or sit, or lie -- and wait.  Although this hasn't been the holiday we all had in mind -- chicken-noodle soup instead of turkey, cranberry juice instead of cranberry sauce -- I've found that it's been easier than usual today to stop and count my blessings.  I have a lot to be thankful for, and as for today, I'm still at home enjoying time with the family, and things could be a lot worse.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

I'll pass

By now you have probably heard about the couple in Minnesota who have set up a website where people can vote on whether they should abort their child, now at 17 weeks gestation.  The vote will close 16 days from now, two days before the last legal day for them to procure an abortion.  It goes without saying that this is unbelievably sick, whether or not this couple intends actually to hand over their decision to strangers and whatever their ultimate decision.

What is less clear-cut is what the appropriate response to this site should be for a person of conscience.  I have seen several pleas online, from people I respect, to visit the website and vote "no".  Still, somehow, I cannot bring myself to click that button and thereby participate in this disgusting scheme.  I understand the importance of being a strong pro-life witness, and I agree wholeheartedly with a number of messages to this couple posted on the website (which I have visited) by strangers concerned for the life of their child.  In any case, leaving well thought-out comments attempting to awaken these people to the value of life seems to me a far preferable response to participating in the vote.  Still, a large part of me is so revolted by this couple's whole project and the hype it has attracted that I regret even contributing to the flood of traffic to their website, let alone legitimizing it by attempting to engage with its depraved creators.

To attempt to engage with them, to show outrage and beg them to let their baby live, is exactly what they want -- they could hardly have expected any other response in setting up such a forum.  These people are only going to hear what they want to hear, exercising control over the fascinated and horrified public while reserving the right to disregard the ultimate outcome of their poll.  I feel manipulated enough, having been lured to their website by sheer amazement at the evil it represents, without stooping to participating further.  Maybe in this case the best response is one directed away from these particular two people and toward society at large.  We need to take a hard look at what it is about our culture that can produce such a total disregard for the value of life.  I will pray for this couple's baby -- abominably dubbed "Wiggles" -- but also for all unborn babies and their parents, and for a change of heart in our entire culture.  Maybe the shock that this website has generated will turn out to be an impetus in the right direction.

Enough of the heavy stuff.  I have another divisive issue to discuss:  the relative merits of cakes and pies.  This weekend, I made my first pie all by myself, start to finish, crust and all.  It was utterly unrewarding.  I spent most of the morning in the stop-and-start process of making the crust -- making the dough, chilling it, rolling it, prebaking it -- and then, there was still the filling to go.  I had a terrible time getting the pumpkin custard to set up, and the crust turned out sadly overdone.

Baking cakes, by contrast, is nearly always a pleasure.  I often hang up my work for the night at 10:30 or 11 p.m. and head to the kitchen to make a cake, which will be baked and snugly sealed into my cake carrier before midnight.  The process of making a cake is all active time -- except for the baking time, during which I can get some reading done undisturbed.  If the cake is a success, wonderful!  It's been time well-spent, and I have a tasty reward.  If not, no great loss -- I've still had some steady, therapeutic baking time at the end of my day -- sans coating my kitchen table and likely the floor with butter and flour -- and it's really no great loss.  Besides, there's so much variety in cakes:  fancy cakes, coffee cakes, layer cakes, loaf cakes, cakes with fruit, chocolate, nuts, lots of butter, not so much butter, etc., etc.  I feel like an artist when I make a cake.  I felt like a maniac making a pie.

Tonight I soothed my pie-frazzled nerves by baking a cake I've had my eye on since last fall, a bittersweet chocolate and pear cake I saw on Smitten Kitchen.  It's one of the best I've made, and I don't think that's just the pie frustration talking.  From here on out, I'll leave pies to Mrs. Smith or whoever else cares to take the trouble over them -- I'm sticking with cakes.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Augustine, inside out

I made a start today on reading through the early letters of St. Augustine.  This semester, I've been reading the four dialogues Augustine wrote while in retreat at Cassiciacum, near Lake Como in Italy, in 386-87, during the time between his conversion to Christianity and his baptism.  The dialogues themselves are revealing of the inward turn Augustine took in his own search for Truth and which he advocated for his students, and the letters provide yet another intimate level of evidence showing this trend in his thought.

What struck me most today about these letters, though, is that, as personal as Augustine's investigation of his own mind and soul was, it also enabled him to achieve a remarkable depth in his interpersonal relationships as well.  As he shows in his famous prayer at the opening of the second book of the Soliloquies -- "Noverim me, noverim te (May I know myself, may I know you)" -- Augustine realized that self-knowledge could only be achieved through knowledge of God.  And what could be more universally meaningful, what could bind friends together more powerfully, than an understanding of all people as creatures made by God, in his image?  Keeping this in mind, it seems only natural that Augustine and his friends wrote to one another about their intense longing to be physically present together and to compare the findings of their soul-searching and to test their tentative conclusions against each other.  All people being equal and united under God, it only makes sense that friends should assist one other in their ascent towards Truth.

As I admired the intimacy of Augustine's correspondence and the import of the issues at stake therein, I inevitably recognized the general shallowness of my own correspondence.  For this, to whatever degree it exists, I take full personal responsibility -- I'm not tempted toward a tritely gloomy reflection on the detriment of modern media on our social relationships.  What an endlessly facile scapegoat technology can be.  But I'll avoid getting heavy on this point.

So, instead, the day's culinary highlights.  I continue to explore the new Essential New York Times Cookbook, and it hasn't led me astray so far.  Tonight, I had planned to try out Mark Bittman's Pork and Sweet Potatoes in Coconut Milk, but I had to sub in chicken at the last minute when I discovered -- the nose doesn't lie -- that my pork had gone off.  The dish turned out well anyway, with the coconut milk reducing into a thickish creamy sauce that I finished with lime juice.  I served it with Basmati Rice with Coconut Milk and Ginger, from the same book, which turned out to be a nice match as well as a good way to use up the rest of my can of coconut milk.  Tonight, after reaching my brain's limit in gathering thoughts for a new paper, I whipped up, finally, a batch of Dorie Greenspan's Great Grains muffins, which I've wanted to try for a long time.  I've flash frozen them to bake up tomorrow morning -- there's no better incentive to get out of bed than fresh muffins.  We'll see how they turn out.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Not even funny

I have often thought that someone could make a really hilarious reality show exposing what goes in creative writing workshops.  While I got a lot of good writing practice in my creative nonfiction classes as an undergrad, workshop sessions often ranged from exasperating to downright absurd.  In fiction workshops, there were always the obviously autobiographical stories of suicide, drug addiction, death, divorce, etc., discussions about which were much more therapy sessions for the authors than any kind of exercise in literary criticism.  In nonfiction workshops, the classic oversharers had free rein to spill their guts with total abandon, a privilege that resulted in, for example, an hourlong discussion of a female student's extended essay on her experience of childbirth and its gory aftermath, exploring in depth the significance of her own placenta and historical views on that organ.  If I found the experience uncomfortable, my squeamishness was nothing compared to the horrified response of our sixty-something male professor.

My experience in these classes provided plenty of material for TV-worthy situational comedy, but, for all that, it always had some redeeming value.  Despite the nonsense I sometimes had to read and treat seriously in class discussions, it was always the case that most of my classmates were honestly doing the best work they were capable of.  I could count on getting thoughtful comments on my work from at least a couple of fellow writers whose opinions I respected, and my professors always held the class to a sufficiently high standard to stimulate real effort, whatever kind of product resulted.

This semester, I am in a workshop once again, this time entitled Advanced Translation.  I had high hopes for this class:  the title sounded rigorous, and it is offered through one of the nation's leading writing departments.  Unfortunately, it has turned out to be the worst kind of sham.  This is hardly material for a satirical T.V. show.  This is prime fodder for an expose on how Ivy League professors get away with absolute murder, pulling down full salaries for decades in compensation for precisely zero actual work, while offering their students the opportunity to get an impressive-sounding credential on their transcripts for investing nearly zero effort.  While there are a couple of truly talented students in the class who consistently share well-crafted translations, the work we discuss is usually a far cry from advanced, displaying a bare minimum of effort and a profound lack of understanding of the rudiments of the English language.  Today's seemingly interminable class was especially illustrative of the laziness and lack of rigor that have been so characteristic of our weekly sessions, but after enduring two and a half hours of such nonsense, I simply don't have the stomach to describe it.

What I do have the stomach for:  the couple of dishes I've prepared from my new cookbook.  Last night:  a chocolate cake that takes about five minutes to get in the oven, contains only five tablespoons of oil and no other fat, and that turned out to be a moist, fudgy delight.  Tonight:  spaghetti with roasted peppers and fried eggs.  I roasted a pepper myself, and although I think I can improve on my method next time, the result was pretty tasty.  I would have enjoyed my dinner in any case, but it's truly amazing how satisfying it can be to put together a decent homemade meal -- to perform the simple, honest, useful act of feeding myself -- after sitting for hours feeling potentially productive time slip painfully.  Although, come to think of it, I guess that monumental waste of my time produces the useful result of putting dinner on my professor's table -- a pretty good wage for the couple of useless, redundant comments he made today.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

On becoming an ancestor

Today in Sunday school, my (single) student and I reached the chapter that introduces the patriarchs of the church, beginning with Abraham.  There's a prompt on one of the students' pages that I like to ask them to respond to:  One day you will be an ancestor.  How do you want your descendants to remember you?

This is the third year I've posed this question to my students, and they've always found it a challenging one to answer.  First off, can be understandably difficult for eleven-year-olds to get their heads around the idea of being mothers and fathers, let alone great-great-grandparents.  If they overcome that hurdle, they then find it difficult to imagine how they want to be remembered as ancestors in faith.  It's easier, and more fun, to imagine their grandchildren finding an old photo of them decades down the line and remembering stories about the quirky things they used to do.  I haven't met a kid yet who volunteered that he or she wanted to be remembered for praying the rosary regularly, reading the Bible to the kids, or hauling the family to church.

My student this year shared the second difficulty with my previous students; she had trouble focusing on the faith aspect, writing in her book that she wanted to be remembered for reducing CO2 emissions.  I didn't have much success at redirecting her, but ultimately, I was more thankful for what she shared with me than frustrated at getting off course.  Uniquely among all the students I've had, this girl has no trouble at all imagining herself as an adult, and judging from the stories she's told me from week to week, and especially yesterday, I think this is probably because she has seen so much vulnerability in the adults that surround her.  Her mother moved to New England from Cape Verde only about 15 years ago.  She still sounds funny when she speaks English, as my student puts it; while she takes English classes at the local community center, her daughters have a perfect command of the language.  This girl has also seen adults close to her laid low by tragic situations:  a cousin, pregnant with twins, who was supposed to be married, but who miscarried the babies and called off the wedding in her depression; a friend of the family lost her daughter when her car was hit by an teenager driving illegally, but can't keep from blaming herself because the girl was unbuckled.  It's heavy stuff for an eleven-year-old, and through it, she's come to see that adults can be just as helpless as children.

We'll return to the patriarchs next week and hopefully cover a little more Old Testament ground than we did this week.  For today, I'll be satisfied that we both recognized the fragility of all people, old and young.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Grocery list night

I love making my weekly grocery list.  I exercise great restraint in putting it off until Thursday night, Grocery Shopping Eve.  Then, after my work is done, I have the treat of going through cookbooks, cooking magazines, and the "Cook Me!" bookmarks file on my internet browser to select recipes for the coming week.  I usually get to plan on two dinners, to cook Monday and Wednesday, along with, usually, a dessert of some kind and a breakfast item -- maybe even two.  It may not sound exciting, and this certainly hasn't always been my habit:  it still amazes me that I've come so far from just a little over a year ago, when the dinner rotation still consisted of blue box macaroni and cheese (usually with a can of tuna thrown in for protein), store-brand waffles and scrambled eggs, and Maruchan ramen noodles (with an egg and some Tabasco sauce thrown in, and maybe a few mushrooms, if I was feeling like real grad student gourmet).  Two (successful) sight exams and 14 months later, I am a reformed eater, and I love the creative outlet that cooking provides.

This week, happily, I have a new cookbook to browse through as I compile my list (and at mealtimes, and before bedtime...):  The new Essential New York Times Cookbook, edited by Amanda Hesser, out just last week.  It's a big and beautiful book, featuring over 1,000 recipes spread over 932 pages.  So far, one interesting entree has made the dinner lineup for this week: Spaghetti with Fried Eggs and Roasted Peppers (p. 339).  I'm especially intrigued by the addition of a couple of sunny-side up eggs over the pasta in the final step, which bleed their yolks over the noodles like a butter sauce.  I wish I had time to make the Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew (p. 560-61), but that may just have to wait until Christmas break.

It's been a long day here, wrapping up with my two-and-a-half-hour seminar finishing at 9 p.m.  Tomorrow morning I'll wake up ready to go, grocery list completed for our evening shopping trip and brain refreshed for an afternoon of joining Augustine in his quest to see Lady Wisdom buck naked (see Soliloquia 1 -- it's really too good to miss).

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

On academic idolatry

I've been working today on rounding up some ideas I've wanted to go back to since reading Augustine's early dialogue De ordine a few weeks ago. In all of three of the early dialogues, the character of Licentius, a student of Augustine's from Milan who has retreated with him to Cassiciacum, stands out to me, as I think he must for any reader. He's hopelessly smitten with poetry, and he constantly earns sharp rebukes from Augustine for spending too much time playing with his verses and too little devoting himself to philosophy. And even when he engages with all his intellectual might in the dialogues' debates, he is always -- as he is painfully aware -- being scrutinized by Augustine's relentless critical eye.

One of the most poignant moments in the dialogues comes in the middle of the first book of De ordine. In a nighttime debate that takes place in the bedroom that all of the interlocutors share, Licentius has just had what, in my view, is a triumph of intellectual self-sufficiency, converting to the study of philosophy on his own terms. But, in the morning light, we see Licentius creeping to the bedside of Augustine and asking quietly, timidly: "What do you think of me?" Throughout the dialogues, Licentius seems as hindered as he is helped by the presence of Augustine, a teacher whom he admires and respects greatly despite his harsh pedagogical style. As I see it, having to worry about how he is perceived by someone whose opinion he values highly is simply distracting, to the point of being counterproductive. But, then again, the same desire to please probably produces results that independent study would not; we do not need to pursue a goal for its own sake in order to attain it.

I think most students have a bit of Licentius in them -- I know that I do. I've had many an academic crush in my day, and especially when I was about his age, in my mid-teens. Most of these crushes have been on women; looking back, I wanted to be these women as much as I wanted them to approve of me. They were role models elevated to the level of idols. And while I knocked myself out to do well in their classes, I know that the energy I expended simply idolizing my teachers personally, if not actually unhealthy, could have been better spent otherwise -- such as in developing my own personal talents and interests, while worrying less about conforming to a model constructed by someone else.

For me, Licentius, and all of us, I think, this is part of the push-and-pull of growing up. We need people we respect and admire to push us to realize our potential, but ultimately, it must be our own potential that we aim to realize. This is why I feel for poor Licentius in De ordine; it's painful to see him briefly, triumphantly assert his independence, only to revert to quietly, anxiously yearning for his teacher's approval.

In other news: it's been a day of good eatin' here! I made for the second time what we are now calling simply "pumpkin", as if there's nothing else one can do with a pumpkin, but is called by Dorie Greenspan in her new book "Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good." And by everything, we're talking bread, cheese, bacon, apples, nuts, and whatever else strikes your fancy! I also tried a new cranberry sauce recipe, which was unanimously adopted for the Thanksgiving lineup. Score.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


Tonight our department made its annual pilgrimage to a nearby university admittedly more illustrious than our own for a lecture and response, drinks and dinner with our colleagues there. It was my third time attending the event; I feel more confident walking into the graduate club there than I did as a timid first-year, and I know more or less what to expect of the evening. I now remember the faces if not the names of a good number of the graduate students at the host university, and having advanced past my (more) panic-filled and seemingly directionless first two years, I have more and more interesting things to talk about with them.

And yet, I find myself a little starstruck in this environment. There's still something of the awe-stricken outsider in me that gets a bit taken in by the wood paneling and warm lighting of the room where we meet. It pains me to admit it, but being handed a glass of wine along with a napkin imprinted with the seal of the university club still carries a bit of a thrill. And most of all, being surrounded by brilliant, confident, world-class scholars -- although, I hasten to add, many such scholars reside at my own institution -- excites and inspires me, and perhaps a bit dangerously, breeds in me a bit of -- dissatisfaction? ambition? both? As fortunate as I am to live where I do and to be surrounded with the wonderful group of friends and colleagues with whom I spend each day, visits to this school make me want to think harder, write more, dream bigger. They make me just a bit ashamed of my non-scholarly pleasures and make me painfully aware of all the times I let my mind lie idle, let time waste away. Of course, I can always benefit from an impetus to do better in my scholarly life, as well as life in general. Still, when I think about what it is that these visits make me want, I have difficulty pinpointing any specific desire. I'm smart enough, at least, to realize that dissatisfaction divorced from a clear aim to seek something really, truly better and worthier is a pernicious thing. Before I head to bed tonight, I need to put that in writing. If I need to make any adjustments to my goals in life, they need to be stimulated by a force more personal and focused than the vague ambience of a heady, elite intellectual setting.

Little blog, you are still new to me, and it is too soon to tell if our relationship will be just another fling. But I do look forward to coming home to you. My time with you has been the most honest I've had all day.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A tough read

Culling through news headlines this morning, I came across one of the most powerfully reported features I've seen in a long time: an article and accompanying photographs in the New York Times on female self-immolation in Afghanistan, a horrifying and apparently common act of desperation among Afghani women who are oppressed and abused by their husbands, fathers, brothers, and in-laws. Fire, it seems, is one of the few resources available to these women when their lives seem unbearable, appealing particularly because it seems surefire: the worst outcome of a suicide attempt would be surviving it, and jumping from the roof, for example, leaves too high a risk of such a fate. Nonetheless, as the article showed, more than a few women are so unlucky as to survive attempted immolation. The article was difficult to get through, profiling several individual survivors, but the photographs accompanying it were truly devastating. I don't think I've ever seen such intense suffering captured by a camera. Seeing one woman convulsing in agony as the bandages on her full-body burns were changed brought tears to my eyes and, I hope, to the eyes of people all around the world today. At a time when the future of journalism is precarious, and sloppy, frivolous reporting abounds, this feature was a powerful reminder of the force of the best kind of reporting -- brave, honest, revelatory, important. This is the type of reporting that can bring about change for the good in our world, and seeing this feature this morning has had me thinking all day about how I can convert my emotional response to it into something more proactive and useful.

A final, lighter note on my culinary achievement of the day. When I get home late late after a lecture, investing even more of the evening in making dinner does not always appeal. Sometimes, though, resisting the urge to slam a quick fried egg sandwich or similar more than repays the effort. After taking the first bite of my dinner at 8:30 tonight, I was very glad indeed that I'd taken the time to throw together one of my all-time favorite fall dishes, Warm Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad from Smitten Kitchen. Every time I taste this salad, I'm ready to scrap every other butternut squash preparation I know. This is just the best.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Night vision

Sometimes I see more clearly at night. It's mysteriously paradoxical that my brain often becomes more active the minute I lie down to go to sleep, suddenly churning out with terrifying efficiency and lucidity answers to problems I have been grinding away at all day. Sometimes the fiery nucleus of a thought I have mentally been orbiting at some distance from in the cold, murky darkness of my daytime mind rockets searingly into my consciousness almost as soon as I shut my eyes. In the best cases, I find a satisfying resolution to a nagging open question and drift peacefully into oblivion. In the worst cases, sleep becomes impossible as I am jolted into hypersensitive awareness of a terrifying reality that the distractions of daytime kept me from seeing clearly. For instance: these bones of mine -- these frail props for the flesh containing not just my vital organs but my very consciousness, and everything essentially me -- have to carry me through the rest of my earthly life. If they give out, I cease to be. And what paltry strength mere bones possess compared to the force of my spirit, defiantly kicking within me during these awful night awakenings more than at any other time. Nighttime is savagely honest, yet beautiful in its brutality. In the morning, the light of day and its mundane demands will sunnily obscure the vivid and real. Nighttime is worth staying up for.

Night imparts its lucid vision to all of us separately, yet to all of us the same. Listening to a podcast of the radio show "This American Life" entitled "Fear of Sleep a few weeks ago, I realized that even my most intimate nighttime terrors were not unique. One interviewee recounted a long history of chilling waking realizations that she was going to die. The sheer fact of it would burst upon her with breath-catching force suddenly in the night, and she would find herself crying from sadness and powerlessness. Alone in the dark, facts are facts, and the bald fact of our mortality asserts itself as supremely and solely relevant.

In St. Augustine's De Ordine, which I've been studying over the past few weeks, one of Augustine's young students has a less terrifying but equally powerful nighttime revelation. After spending his days oppressed by relentless Socratic-style interrogation on perplexing philosophical questions, feeling constantly in the spotlight and paralyzingly accountable for every word he uttered, this young man, Licentius, finally converts to the ways of philosophy during an ecstastic epiphany in the dark of the wee hours. He's alone in bed, (briefly) unobserved, and he finally has the freedom to let his mind go.

For Licentius in this dialogue, as for all of us, when daylight dawns, it brings not illumination, but obfuscation. Night vision, clear and true and real, comes gratuitously and fleetingly. Sometimes rising and rejoining the colorful, crowded daytime world feels like a blessing; other times, it is disingenuous distraction from the strange and brilliant truth only the mind can see.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

De magistra

I made a student cry yesterday.

I didn't mean to do it. I didn't realize that I was doing it. I am a nice person. I am a careful and considerate teaching assistant. I was genuinely surprised to look up from the essay I was discussing with my student and to notice that her eyes were becoming increasingly shiny and red. It wasn't allergies. It was me.

But probably not me. Probably a bad day, a bad week. The gray, gloomy day and a lack of sleep. Not one tactfully-worded, constructive criticism of a point in her essay, but one plus one. Then one plus one plus one. And another and another. And a long night ahead and last night out the window and despair. Yes, I know that well enough. God knows I've been there.

Yet the incident still left me feeling guilty and unsettled. Later in the day, I tried to analyze my reaction internal reaction to the situation. I had been, above all, surprised that what I had said -- however mildly, however diplomatically -- had produced an emotional reaction in this student, whom I didn't even know. If this student hadn't had felt some reason to value my opinion, bad day or not, she probably wouldn't have been upset by my criticism. Apparently, oddly, I had some power in my lowly role.

In my daily life as a T.A., I feel the furthest thing from powerful. I do not teach the class; I don't even grade papers. I am initially just as unfamiliar with the texts we study in class as the students themselves, and I am frequently impressed -- humbled, even -- by the quality and originality of the students' comments on the material. Yet in the minds of these undergraduates, savvy, smart, and capable though they are, I occupy a superior and even -- imagine! -- an intimidating position. I know, because when I think back on my undergraduate experience, I know that I held graduate teaching assistants in similar reverence. They were real adults; they'd survived what I was going through, and were now formally charged with putting the next generation of students through their paces. I was at the mercy of their judgment, which I felt every reason to assume was better-informed than my own. If a GTA had found a knot of significant flaws in a piece of my writing, due just a couple of days hence, his or her criticism may well have affected me emotionally as well as intellectually.

Looking back on what happened yesterday, I don't think I said anything I shouldn't have to my student. I don't even think I could have said it in a more considerate way. I do realize, however, that while I've taken care to be an exceptionally helpful and personable T.A. to this point, I should be even more mindful of what it must feel like to be sitting in the chair opposite me. Maybe this means I should use more positive reinforcement, more liberally tempering my suggestions for improvement with praise for things done well. Or maybe it means that I should simply realize that part of my job is helping students develop thicker intellectual skin, and that this process is not always an easy one on the student's end. In any case, yesterday was a good reminder that my students take me more seriously than I take myself. I need to be careful in exercising the power that I didn't even know I had.