Author: JDJPlocher

Nobody

“Nobody’s talking about…”
“Nobody’s considering the needs of…”
“Nobody seems to understand that…”

An empty stool in a corner
Who is listening to me?

I’ve been seeing these all week in social media and comments sections. (FSM help me, I cannot look away from this coronavirus in schools train wreck, even though I am definitely inside the train with most of you.) The statements inevitably conclude with something about the speaker’s position. Teachers complain that nobody is thinking about them. Working parents complain that nobody is thinking about them

I can guarantee you, though, that pretty close to every teacher has thought about the parents of their students. I can’t make the same promises about every parent, but I’m guessing many, probably most, have at least a glimmer of sympathy for the position teachers are being put in. (There are always going to be people who have wild misapprehensions about how much work teaching is and how much skill it requires, and yeah, I’ve seen those posts, too.)

The “nobody” you’re looking for? It’s much of our leadership. It’s the machinery of our society. In some cases it’s been willfully blind to problems, in others the blindness has become baked into the system. 

Here are some truths:

People are going to die. Teachers have already died on the job. (See for example this story about summer school teachers in Arizona.) Eventually, students are going to die, too. It’s a “when,” not an “if.”

Having students on campus is not going to magically return education to normal. There will be an awful lot that teachers won’t be able to do in a socially distant classroom. For younger students, especially, it may be more psychologically challenging than remote learning. (Try to put yourselves in the shoes of an eight year old who goes back to school and has to wear a mask and stay in the same seat and not borrow things from their friends and have limited specials and even recess is probably messed up and different.)

Households are going to splinter. Families are juggling irreconcilable obligations at enormous costs in time, money, and stress. There aren’t signs it’s going to end soon. That stress isn’t just going to vanish into the air. That’s ongoing harm that is going to have consequences sooner and later. 

Remote learning is still going to suck, although it will not be the crisis schooling of last spring. Teachers have had time to reflect and prepare. We’ll do better, but there’s only so much our public education resources allow us to level the technological playing field for students (never mind what’s going on with their families).

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die.

The truth that’s roiling our collective guts, of course, is the one that I started with: people are going to die. There’s a reason we use the phrase “it’s a matter of life and death” to mean “this is the most important thing.” It’s literal this time. How many deaths are we willing to accept? What is it going to look like when the first school-based outbreak hits the U.S.? Are we going to respond by shutting everything down again? How much are we willing to sacrifice to push that chance of death down as close to zero as we can get it?

Reduced to absurdity, that line of thinking has all of us who are able living in well-supplied bunkers and never going out. Can’t get into a car wreck that way. Can’t get struck by lightning if you’re underground. Can’t catch a disease you’re never exposed to. 

Equally reductive is this idea that we’re going to wave our flags and show off our best mask-free smiles and just try not to keep asking for time off for funerals while everything is going back to normal. (I’m intentionally ignoring both the “it’s in God’s hands” and “it’s all a hoax” camps. Fight me.)

Most people want something between those. We’re pondering, talking about, often shouting about where we think we should be between those two poles. When somebody’s prioritizing different things, it becomes easy to say “nobody thinks about me.” But it misses the point. 

I know we’ve nearly lost it in digressions, but the real point is this: we’re not set up for a public health crisis that’s also an economic crisis that’s also a political crisis. That “nobody is talking about my side” problem is the confluence of all sorts of things in the discourse (yes, I went there. Grad school never completely wears off) that push us towards binary antagonism. 

We don’t have effective mechanisms for keeping people at home and letting them keep their homes (and food and utilities and jobs). That is true even when everything is morning in America: our social safety net is made of twine and pipe cleaners. (And that bolstered unemployment from the CARES act? It’s about to run out.) Our society is predicated on people exchanging their time and labor for money. Think about how many of us identify by our jobs

Our leadership has failed. Not universally. Not completely. To say that this was all avoidable does not return the spilt milk to its bottle. There has been too much magical thinking. There has been too much concern with how the news affects politics. Too many of us have viewed our leaders through the lenses we’ve built up over the years, positive and negative. 

On the education side, we’re asked to be inventive, original, engaging…and meet our testing targets. Bureaucracy cannot help but move slowly. I love my district. My principal is the best boss I’ve had, and every AP has teachers’ backs while also being deeply concerned with the students. And despite that, we don’t know what things will look like in September. We’re not entirely sure what things are going to look like for our scheduled return in a matter of weeks. And why is that? Because we’re dealing with a combination of vague guidance and strict mandates from the state. Because we’re not sure what the county COVID-19 testing numbers are going to look like next week. I am lucky to be in a district that’s grown so much that the buildings are all pretty new, but is small enough that we’re not having to balance poor campuses against wealthier ones as the central office works out policies. And I’m still anxious about the limits of what our district can do. 

And that brings us to the ultimate point here: The “nobody” that’s talking about the things you care about is the same one that’s coming to save you. Nobody. Nobody is coming to save you. Nobody is coming to save us. Whatever combination of panic, frustration, and fury we’re feeling about reopening schools in our coronavirus world is a symptom, not the disease. If we want to change it, we have to try and push our broken systems into a better shape. That’s a matter of consultation and economics and politics…which I hope we are all better understanding are matters of life and death for an awful lot of us. 

Essential

I am supposed to be back on campus, with students in front of me, on August 11. I don’t think you need me to point out that that is less than a month away. I live in Texas, where the state education agency has mandated that all districts offer a full on-campus program (we are allowed to offer remote learning, but not required to). Texas, where our 7-day average for new cases is about 9200 as of July 12. That’s higher than Arizona (though not per capita) and only about 700 behind headline-hogging Florida. 

About ten days ago, the country collectively thought “hey, remember school? We used to send our kids there. We should send them there again.” The president weighed in, as usual, via Twitter and caps lock and his vice president saying the same things but in complete sentences without caps lock. People have opined in op-eds. Most teachers I know and many parents have posted about it on social media. 

“They’re gambling with our lives.”

“They’re asking us to be guinea pigs.”

“They only care about the economy.”

I’ll be reporting back to campus in three weeks. 

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April.

I am an essential worker. And do you know where I remember hearing the sentiments above? From other essential workers in March and April. In retail. In fast food. In health care when PPE was in shortage (as it is becoming again). Society responded with rounds of applause, with cartoons painting nurses and doctors and grocery store workers and delivery drivers as heroes. 

Then we handed them masks (sometimes, in some states), put up some plexiglass (in some places), and got on with things as best we could. 

No matter what I wish, I do not think that teachers will fare any better. 

We teachers have the idea that we belong to the professional class. By education and by cultural capital, we do. Many states require teachers to have master’s degrees within a certain number of years from beginning in the profession. Every state requires continuing education hours. Teachers spend a lot of time learning. (This is to say nothing of the learning that good teachers constantly undertake in their own classrooms.) 

What this crisis is driving home, what has been obvious for years, is that, in economic terms, teachers belong to the working class. (When was the last time you heard about a lawyer needing a part time job to keep bills paid?) We’re harder to replace than retail employees, sure, but if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder. “Skilled labor” is still labor. 

…if the choice is between stopping society’s economic machine and grinding up public school employees to keep it running? We’re going into the grinder.

None of this is to say that our worries as teachers are meaningless. Nor is this post about encouraging us all to embrace our inner Marxist. I’ve just been struck by how many teachers’ complaints involve comparison to health care workers (and their salaries) and tacit assumptions that we’re somehow worth more (in some sense) than the essential workers who’ve been doing their essential work for the last four months. 

And our work is essential. The problem I’m seeing in a lot of the conversations about schools reopening is that they mistake how much of teachers’ essential work will actually happen on a socially distant campus. Skilled teaching involves tons of interaction. Even teaching high school seniors, I am generally moving around the classroom most of the period, monitoring students and their work, crouching down by desks to check in, and doing all sort of things that can’t be done effectively from six feet away. And many of those things are the ones that make the much-cited contribution to students’ mental health and security. I can’t imagine trying to teach elementary students from inside a six-foot (or even three-foot) bubble. Your groceries can be rung up from the other side of the plexiglass. Can you learn calculus that way? How much more effective is it going to be than just learning via screen? The best thing about having kids back on campus—and though tragic, it’s not a small thing—may well be that more of their parents will be able to pay rent. 

I have more anxiety than answers. There hasn’t been a waking hour in the last week in which I haven’t thought about how schools will reopen and the idiotically political discourse that’s sprung up around it. The risks are different than they are in retail. My naive hope that we’d be able to glean some lessons from schools reopening in Europe has gone out the window as case numbers have shot back up in Texas and around the country. Those reopenings were all undertaken in places where the spread of COVID had been slowed. The way things are going now, it’s a statistical certainty that students and at least some staff will be showing up to campus with the virus in their system. And schools are just being left to make do.

I’ll control what I can. I’ll get some masks with cool patterns, I guess. I will treat getting home like healthcare workers do: in through the garage, clothes into the wash, shower. I’ll do my job the best I can.

I am, after all, essential.

Learning and Risk and Coronavirus

My classroom, already empty for months, an hour or so before I checked out for the year at the end of May.

Just before the district offices shut down for their usual summer break—one that will be less than half the length it usually is this year—they sent out an internal draft of our plan for returning to school in the “fall” (which in this case means the second week of August). I can’t go into the details for a variety of reasons, but the broad contours resemble the plans and bits of plans that have been floating for the last several weeks: options for parents and students; emphasis on masks, distance, and sanitizing for those students who will be on campus at least part of the time; some preliminary suggestions of how teachers’ responsibilities for face to face and virtual learning might be split up. 

As I mentioned, it’s a draft, and a district level draft, which means much of the implementation still needs to get ironed out at the campus level. (I expect that this will be happening right up to the day school starts.) There’s a sprawl of complications: how will students get to school? How do we deal with students wanting to socialize? And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible? 

And ultimately: how do we minimize risk while maintaining as much educational benefit as possible?

It’s that concept of minimizing risk that is the hardest. When many parents were suddenly thrust into managing their children and their children’s “distance learning” back in March, there was, if not an outpouring, at least a wave of expression of sympathy for teachers and how complex our jobs are. Now, especially with the American Academy of Pediatrics encouraging as much education as possible to occur in the classroom, minimizing risk in schools has become another flashpoint in our collective navigation of the pandemic.

I think that you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would argue that remote learning works best for most students. (There are definitely some, especially in the secondary grades, for whom it does, but they’re a minority.) When we are in the classroom with our students, we are able to read those students and quickly adapt to their needs. You can’t do that with pre-recorded lessons, nor can you do it effectively in an online discussion in which you only see students’ faces. By training and by practice, effective teachers are intensely interactive with their students, even when that interaction means giving them space to figure things out on their own for a bit. 

Assuming that education works best in person, how do we do that? How do we minimize risks? My campus is slated to be over capacity this year while we wait for a new building to open. Managing transition between classes is a crazy problem on its own, never mind what happens inside classrooms. Even if a significant number of students opt for remote lessons, if I am teaching in person sections I can expect to see at least 100 different students every day, possibly up to last year’s 150. (And my load is on the lighter side for a core subject teacher because my AP classes tend to run small.) That brings me into contact not only with those students, but with everybody they have been in contact with: their families, their friends, their coworkers, their customers…to teach in a classroom is to jump back into the deep end of the pool of social contact. How can we even think about risk management in that situation?

We could, as a society, throw resources at it: more buildings, creating outdoor teaching spaces where they are viable, more people employed in education. (This would be a real emergency for “emergency certification.”) That would make more socially distanced classrooms practical, but it gets expensive very, very quickly. It can be disgustingly difficult to get funding for American public education in times of plenty. How are we supposed to throw money at it when the economy is running off the rails and state and local governments are facing major budget shortfalls? Barring a sudden and unexpected groundswell of public agitation for it, I don’t expect we’ll solve this problem with real estate and rapid hiring.

It’s got to be solved somehow, though. Much of the function of our society is predicated on parents being able to put their children in public schools during the day. That’s how we expect people to have jobs and children at the same time. The harder it is for students to be on campus, in classrooms, the harder it is for parents to work. Whom do we make choose between paying rent and educating their child? The families most affected by the quasi-shutdowns of the spring (which were, remember, three quarters of the way through the year and thus “reasonable” to shift toward review and consolidation for the online components) were low income families where the choice had to be paying rent. 

So we try to minimize risk. That puts teachers in the middle of things. We’re being asked to assume risk. I think it’s reasonable to push, as a profession, for that risk to be managed and considered with the best information available. I think it’s reasonable to be scared; COVID-19 is potentially deadly and we’re seeing more and more that not all recoveries are complete. I think we have to keep paying attention to the research, watching our peers in other countries who have already gone back to school, and adjust what we’re doing as necessary.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk.

But we have to do. We can’t eliminate risk. I have a job to do, and I want do it well. I care. That means being in the classroom for the students. Do I dread the first time I have a student in my largely conservative community throw a fit about keeping their mask on? Yes. Absolutely. (The politicization of elementary public health measures has been, despite stiff competition, the most maddening thing for me about 2020.) Do I worry that I might end up with scarred lungs and a lifetime of reduced lung capacity at a time when one party is still trying to allow insurance companies to refuse to cover pre-existing conditions? Yeah. For sure. I also worry about somebody running a red light at one of the bad intersections on my commute and killing us both. There is more to life (and more to risk) than the novel coronavirus.

We had our high school graduation at the beginning of June, at the football stadium with a limited audience in blocked off sections of the stands and all the seats for the graduates six feet apart on the field. The moment the mortarboards went up in the air, all that vanished. The students were all hugs and high fives and treating social distance in ways that would get you kicked out of a middle school dance. Managing risks when your brain is still developing capacity for rational thought is hard.  

I took care of myself that night: I was good about keeping my mask on, and though I hated it, I skipped my usual slow rotation through the crowds to wish my students personal farewells. I went straight out to my car after the ceremony and then home, where I washed my hands for twenty seconds. It had been a good ceremony. There were fireworks, and both the valedictorian’s speech and my principal’s speech were models of taking strong positions without demonizing or excluding people who might disagree. 

The ceremony was worth having. Those speeches were worth hearing. Those mortarboards, so help me, were worth throwing into the air. There are so many ways in which signing up to be a teacher is already signing up to be on the front lines of public health. We’re mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. We watch our students wrestle with mental health. Do you need to ask what a bad flu season looks like from the classroom? I’m worried (and none of this has even touched on my worries as a parent)…but the rewards of my job are worth the work to minimize the risk rather than sacrificing even more of our children’s education in an attempt to eliminate it. 

Uncertainty

A few weeks ago, when the world’s crazy was on the horizon but only if you were looking, I had to decide what I wanted to do with Hamlet. I added it to my AP Literature syllabus last year, swapping it in for The Tempest. I make our Shakespeare the last major work we do before the exam. It’s the oldest strata of language the students are responsible for, and it’s good to have that in their “ears” as they get ready for their cold reads. Hamlet, in addition to its place near the heart of the English-language canon, is a really versatile play that works for a variety of potential “Question 3” topics on the exam. (That’s the one question that asks students to deal with a work they read before the exam.)

IMG_0498

Anyway. Last year, I got through the nuts and bolts of the play, focusing on language and performance issues without really building a whole unit around it. (Spring break and high school ultimate season kept a lot of potential elaboration away.) This year, I wanted to give the play its proper due and put it at the center of something substantive. So—and again, this was at a point where even the reports coming out of China were just starting—I decided on “uncertainty.”

Sometimes life can be a little too on-the-nose, yeah?

My district has now officially added two weeks to our scheduled spring break, putting us off campus at least until early April. Like most of you, I’ve been wrestling with what to do, with fears of what may come, with the “pale cast of thought” that “sicklie[s] o’er the native hue of resolution.” So did Hamlet.

That doesn’t mean we’re suddenly all Hamlet—at least no more than we already were troubled Danish princes. The more I think about Hamlet’s uncertainty, the clearer it becomes that he’s phenomenally self-centered, probably the most self-centered protagonist in Shakespeare. Hamlet’s driving questions are all about himself: what should he do, what’s right for him, what’s his place in the universe. Even when he has seemingly committed himself to vengeance and the guidance of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” he’s still thinking about how it affects him.

He does, sometimes, reach for abstract principles of justice and duty, but only intermittently and not always productively. The Act 4 soliloquy he delivers as Fortinbras’ army marches by is generally read as inspired, but it has never quite clicked that way for me. If you haven’t read the play or don’t remember it (buried as it is in a transitional bit where Hamlet’s headed for the ship to England), the gist of it is that all the soldiers marching by, as well as the Poles they’re going to fight, do not hesitate when honor is at stake. They are ready to die for a piece of land that is too small for them to all fight on at the same time. This quickness to violence in defense of honor is what inspires Hamlet to give all his thoughts o’er to vengeance.

It’s a selfish and self-centered uncertainty, Hamlet’s, even when there’s method to his madness.

That’s part of the reason why the play is praised, of course. Hamlet’s easy to read as the “modern” individual, struggling to navigate an unjust world without the pole star of moral certainty. He trusts only Horatio, and Horatio only as a kind of metaphysical sidekick and sounding board for his digressions. Hamlet’s so smart that he doesn’t know what to do. (He’s also pretty consistently a jerk to people over the course of the play.) The questions he wrestles with, as I told my class, are questions we all wrestle with.

But there are limits to what we do as individuals. A melancholy cliffside castle might seem attractive right now (or the Italian countryside of Boccaccio’s Decameron), but that’s not how we live, nor was it how people lived in Elizabethan England. Our uncertainty right now is individual, but it is also painfully collective. We don’t know what is going to happen to us—to our family and friends, to our society, to our economy, to our governments. 2020 was already going to be a messy year. Now there’s a fog thickening over the mess.

Collective uncertainty is easier and harder to deal with. Easier, now, because we have so many ways to communicate that don’t rely on physical proximity. Harder because we don’t have experience. We have experts; hopefully people are paying attention to them. But we haven’t done this before. It’s not influenza in 1918. It’s not SARS or Swine Flu. We are all of us making this up as we go along.

Last Friday, my students wanted answers I couldn’t give them. They’re high school seniors. Their worlds can be as narrow as Hamlet’s, but also as big and sweeping as any of the Romantic or Enlightenment dreamers. They’re already engaging with their communities and the world, but most of them still want to keep a few lifelines to authority. They want to know about prom and graduation and AP exams. They want their rites of passage. A lot of them want to know that, if push comes to shove, the olds will have some answers for them. None of us do. The best I could manage was to remind them that Twitter’s not the best place to get your information, to explain to them the necessity of flattening the curve no matter how cheap plane tickets might be. To remind a room full of 17 and 18-year olds that it’s not necessarily about them, but rather about us.

We’re in this counterintuitive position right now of needing to lean on one another by staying apart. So many things have been cancelled, but people are putting ingenuity and empathy to work to support one another. Virtual concerts and collective education aren’t going to put more masks and ventilators in the hospital, but they can remind us what we’re saving people for. They help us remember that even if we’re stuck in our homes as individuals, we’re all in this together.

(And hopefully none of us, individually, are planning to pass the time with poisoned swords or poisoned wine.)

It’s My Job to Care

I don’t remember much about her. She had moved to Texas from Florida, and had just made the move that I was only starting to think about: from substitute to full-time teacher. I think she had reddish hair. I am sure, though, about what she told me: “You have to love your students.” Nobody had ever told me that before, and I was, at that time, more than a year from taking my first full-time secondary teaching job. The simplicity stuck with me, even though it was a good long while before I had students of my own.

Schools pick up detritus from the waves of “awesome new things” that educational consulting companies market and districts invest in. There’s an inevitable series of trainings, and an inevitable  moment when something changes with district or campus or departmental leadership and a lot of those “awesome new things” get replaced by the newer, more awesome ones. (Really, the vast majority of these programs are simply wrapping fresh jargon around best teaching practices.)

Anyway. One bit of detritus that’s stuck at the high school where I teach is “We will/I will” statements. They’re meant to be a lesson frame: we do these things together, and I (meaning you, the student, who totally owns this statement) will be accountable for this other thing. “We will learn to apply the Pythagorean theorem to solve problems related to area./I will turn in activity 3.11 at the end of class.” It’s a frame that predates my time on the campus, and it kind of bugs me. Contrarian that I am, I’ve reframed them as “our job/your job”—what we’re doing together and what you’re responsible for as an individual. It works pretty well for me, but you’ll notice that it leaves out “my job.”

Teachers do a lot of jobs. I’m not getting back on this blog to talk about the nobility of the profession (though I believe in it), nor about how long-suffering teachers are (there are ups and downs in every job). Students will be back in my classroom in a matter of hours, though, and I want to talk about the most important part of my job: to care.

Last May, I had the chance to see the first group of students I taught graduate from high school. I spent my first year teaching in a public charter in East Austin. There was flailing, there were ups and downs. I might have done more crying than laughing that year, and spent most of it physically and emotionally exhausted. At the end of the year, I was the master of ceremonies for their eighth grade graduation. It’s a small enough school that I had taught English to all of them. Most of those same kids crossed a bigger stage four years later as high school graduates.

IMG_0052There was a different kind of crying.

Among the handshakes and hugs and incredulous exclamations, there were two people I really wanted to find. One was the student who had bribed me into dancing at the school dance by promising to do his homework. (I still have a picture of the two of us from that dance.) I had promised him that I’d come see him graduate, but we hadn’t spoken for years. As an eighth grader, this student was barely hanging on. I worried about him. He told me he was dumb, told me nonchalantly about things in his life that “weren’t that bad” when they obviously were. I was deliriously happy to see him get a diploma. I’ve got another picture of the two of us now—one that he had to take because I was only a month into smartphone ownership and couldn’t work the selfie camera.

The other person was a former colleague. When I was on campus, she taught reading to struggling students. She was also one of the people who helped keep a certain struggling me afloat in and out of the classroom. I wanted to thank her, to let her know I was still teaching. She was on the administrator side of the stage. I explained, in that not-quite-cursory way that you explain things when there are hundreds of people all trying to talk to each other, how much her help and that from my other colleagues had meant to me. I wish I could remember the exact words of her response, but it was something like, “we all knew you cared about your students.”

That meant more to me than anything else she could have said. That year was hard, y’all. I struggled. I was looking for answers on classroom management everywhere and not finding anything that worked for me. The AP who managed discipline had an honest-to-FSM intervention with me and my problem section. (I teared up trying to explain to the students how much I worried about them, which led some of them to make bets about whether I’d cry when I mc’d their eighth grade graduation.) The short version is that the year was hard in large part because I cared. I cared, and I wasn’t that good at the other parts of the job yet.

I’m better at those after a few more years of practice, but still: It’s my job to care. I could put it up on my whiteboard every day. That’s my first responsibility: to care about my students and, when they need it, care for them. Yes, I want them to learn to write a bloody thesis statement. Yes, I want them to be able to speak meaningfully about what they read and to make sure that their language never gets in the way of their ideas. Mostly, though, I have to care.

My department looks a lot different than it did last year. We have a lot of new faculty. For the first time since I arrived on campus, there’s been turnover on my own grade-level team. As I’ve gone through the last week and a half of inservice, I’ve been thinking a lot about what my job is—at least when I catch my breath between rounds of actually trying to do it. I haven’t come up with a better answer than “It’s my job to care.” It’s not the only part of my job, but I’m pretty sure it’s the one that all the rest of teaching builds on.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow I get another 150 people to care about. Even on the inevitable days I will ache for a magic wand to fix their troubles, I think that’s pretty awesome.

Producing Culture, Provoking Empathy

I am continuing to puzzle over the intuitive leap I made the other day to “There is no transcendence, only empathy.” If you haven’t read the post about that, you probably should do so before you read what follows. Today I’m writing about other ways of trying to understand creative work. For better or worse, much of this post is going to be in an academic mode, though I’ll do my best to clarify any jargon. Ready? Here we go.

There’s a game academics play that involves reducing your dissertation to a single sentence. Mine (which you can find a link to in the “works” tab) boils down to “music is a product of its time.” This is a pretty common conclusion for musicologists to reach. It is also, on its face, facile. How could something not be a product of its time? Is it instead something from the future, accidentally abandoned by time travelers? Seriously.

I find, though, that a lot of nonacademics need reminders of this common sense point. People—westerners, anyway—have a tendency to buy wholesale into both Romantic mythologies of music and the ancient Classical ideas of music of the spheres and universal harmony. This pushes music, especially “classical” music (stuff written for the concert hall) into a transcendental space, and leads to utter nonsense like “music is a universal language.” (Uuuuuuugh.) I listened to somebody at a workshop (for English teachers) expound enthusiastically on this idea as he explained how he was learning about jazz. (Aside: music is not a language. The semiotics of music are hella messy and culturally constrained. Philosophers who write about music frequently have unhealthy fixations on the European canon and zero understanding of any kind of nonwestern music.)

Music is cultural production. It is made by people, mostly for people. As cultural production, it is limited by cultural constraints. That doesn’t mean innovation is impossible, only that it is limited. You can do crazy things from inside cultural context! Late Beethoven (especially the quartets), for example, is a marvelous cul-de-sac of musical geometries that have only tenuous connections to what surrounded them. Even rebellion takes its form from what it rebels against.

Anyway. My idea about empathy as a kind of transcendence sidesteps the question of cultural production. Fundamentally, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” occupies a shaky conceptual space that is simultaneously about audience response and about the ontology (philosophy of existence) of art. The transcendence-empathy theory also involves epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), because it suggests something about how art functions to encode and convey understanding. Culture doesn’t come into it until you get several layers in.

I leaned a lot, in my dissertation, on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote about culture and power;  the idea of “cultural capital” derives from his work. (Cultural capital is the set of knowledge and skills that marks one as an elite without necessarily involving material power. As an academic with a broad liberal arts education, I have a ton of cultural capital despite what I get paid as a high school teacher.) Bourdieu writes about “field” and “habitus.” Field is the available conceptual space. The field of cultural production, for example, includes everything from romance novels to symphonies. (There are axes to the field, usually, but they’re not mandatory to understanding the concept.) The field of power, which Bourdieu (and I) spend a lot of time on, is a way of understanding who has power and who doesn’t. Habitus is the way individuals navigate the field.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert

You have some expectations about what you do in a place like this. That’s the field at work. [Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com]

Bourdieu’s theory doesn’t touch empathy or anything about the semiotics of art…at least beyond representing spaces in the cultural field and field of power. By Bourdieu’s theory, concert hall music (“classical”) occupies a space in the field closely aligned to the field of power. Think about the stereotypical image of a classical concert: musicians in tuxedos and black gowns, wealthy older people dressed up for a night out. There’s a lot of stereotyping in that image, but there are reasons it exists. It’s important to understand that music’s place in the field changes over history. Opera, which carries the same associations as classical instrumental music, began as a display of aristocratic wealth and became popular entertainment before gradually resuming its place as music for the elite.

So where does empathy fit into that? Let’s go back to the specific works I mentioned—particularly the Vincent Valdez paintings. Like most artists, Valdez occupies many different spaces in the field depending on how we’re looking at it—as a Latino from San Antonio, as an art school graduate, as a recipient of grants and awards. I saw his work in a museum on the campus of a state university, which has its own place in the field and lends a certain institutional credibility. By working in a “prestigious” medium (painting) and having that work displayed in an institution with authority (the Blanton), Valdez occupies a space in the artistic field that aligns to a significant degree with the field of power. None of that takes away his experiences navigating the broader field of power as a human being.

This is how we fit the one thing into the other. Art as a vehicle for empathy rather than transcendence can bridge distances in the field of power, even if the work as a cultural object is limited to a specific spot in the field (concretely as the museum, abstractly as a work in a medium with high cultural weight). Conceiving of art as cultural production doesn’t automatically preclude the intuition that I had at the museum. I can look at Valdez’s work and experience it empathetically despite the raft of privileges that go with standing in an art museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

I’m still not convinced that “There is no transcendence, only empathy,” entirely holds together. Experiencing art empathetically is great, but ignores many of the other elements of cultural production that affect the work, the creator, and the audience. The paintings that provoke an empathetic response in me won’t do the same for everybody else, because my experience is mediated by all the things I bring into a museum with me. The harder we push to universalize, the more the holes in the idea show.

Can something be true without being universal? Probably! Next post in this series is going to come at the question of empathy and transcendence from the other side, focusing on where our western idea of transcendental art comes from.

Thoughts?

Mucking Up History

Worldbuilding is weird work. The goal is to create something that seems real to the reader, something with consistent rules, with both breadth and depth. It must be—or at least appear to be—plausible. Sometimes, people can get away with thin worldbuilding. Movies do it all the time. Give the audience just enough information to guess about what is going on, and move on before they can start considering details. Novels can’t just sub in special effects in the same way, but there are plenty of ways to suggest a world without actually building it.

This is trickier in fantasy, especially if the stories involve such mundane concerns as travel, economics, or politics. Or food. If you have characters drinking tea and coffee, it has to come from somewhere. You can handwave a certain amount of that, but the more specific your handwaved details, the greater the chance that you create the kind of snag that trips the reader out of the fiction.

Verisimilitude comes in degrees, as does similarity to the real world. George R.R. Martin has been lauded (sometimes) for making his work resemble European history. He’s made public statements about wanting to avoid the vague medievalisms of older high fantasy. Those claims are questionable. I read a blog post several years ago about just how selectively Martin picked the models for his events, and how messed up Westeros would actually be if the events in the novels actually played out. (Among the problems: massive peasant revolts.) I spent half an hour trying to dig up that specific post without any luck, but many of the same points are made by the Public Medievalist here. It’s great work by some great scholars.

The author of the missing post made a point about worldbuilding that stuck with me: everything in a fantasy world is there by the author’s choice. If you put in rape, or racism, or authoritarian ethnostates…that’s an authorial choice. You can claim verisimilitude, as Martin frequently has, but “verisimilitude” is a choice. As the author, you choose not only what is in the book, but what is in the foreground and what is in the background.

I am quite happy to have sidestepped medievalism questions. (I haven’t been able to write high fantasy stuff for most of the last twenty years, at least outside the context of specific RPGs.) The initial inspiration for Ghosts of the Old City was actually a paper I heard at a musicology conference on theater (musical and otherwise) in early 19th-Century New Orleans. I wanted trains and pistols and such.

This led to a different set of problems and a lot of research. The history of trains. The history of firearms. More importantly, it led me into politics. While they’re only in the background in Ghosts, they’re much more prominent in Spires of Trayan. That novel involves an attempted revolution meant to echo European events from 1848.

That drags you into economics, too, and leads to such fun questions as “what would the Industrial Revolution have looked like without chattel slavery?” Much different! Cotton produced via slavery and colonialism produced the explosive growth in production that, among other things, fueled the development of railroads. British textile mills were, at one time, making so much profit that their owners were having a hard time finding things to invest in. They settled on railroads.

I decided that I didn’t want chattel slavery in my books, and that I didn’t want colonialism to operate the way it did in our actual history. Those were decisions I made as the author. I’m still trying to sort out their consequences.

Part of the way I’m doing that is through reading history. Writers are magpies; we steal from any hopper we can get into. I’m learning things, but there’s a constant undercurrent of “what do I do with this?” and “how can I mess with this?” I’ve found myself drawing maps and writing encyclopedia entries that nobody is likely to see. None of the books involve such extensive travel that the reader will need a map to keep track of things. If I’m filling the history with war and political tumult, though, I need to know where things are. That’s why I’m gradually filling in this map:

DSCF3904

The vast majority of the work that I’m doing will only appear around the edges. References to foreign places as a character walks through a market, filling in secondary characters, occasional references to foodstuffs or factories and such. It adds up, though. Those little things are part of what makes a world plausible. The details matter, and it matters that they’re not selected arbitrarily. (Gene Wolfe is a master of this.)

None of this is meant to be a “how to.” There are writers who do awesome things with deep dives into exposition, and others who use a dinner plate to suggest volumes. My tastes tend toward the latter. What’s been most fun for me this summer is approaching history inquisitively and acquisitively, layering choices to create a world that is bigger than my characters, even if it will be smaller than their stories.

We Make Because We Must

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. I’d last been there two years earlier, when some of the exhibits were in the midst of renovation. There’s definitely something to be said for the experience of walking around quietly, looking at things humans have made. The Blanton’s current visiting exhibit is of Aboriginal art. That blew me away because its system of representation is profoundly distinct from Western modes, a difference more profound than anything I’ve encountered with natural language. I am still trying to make sense of it.

When I’d worked a little on digesting the visiting exhibition, I dutifully went upstairs and set in on the ancient European art. It was my usual mode of operation in a museum: I was looking at objects and images and thinking about what I could borrow or transform to use in my writing. In that mode, I was most struck by an ancient Armenian bronze belt. I scribbled some notes about it to perhaps use in a book.

I couldn’t cling to that “I’m a writer in a museum” mode, though, as I moved through the exhibition halls. The next line in my notes is “What place art in a disintegrating society?” The news has been awful. To say “our institutions are under assault” is a lame euphemism for “corruption is destroying our democracy.” Art has seemed so…futile, especially when I’ve been reading about 19th-Century revolutions.

I kept going, though, because I still love art. I particularly wanted to see again some pieces I remembered from my previous visit, two selections from Vincent Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit. These are life-sized paintings of Latino men in the physical attitude of being bound and hanged. The backgrounds are white. Neither noose nor ropes are shown. They hit me. I remembered them and wanted to go back. They hit me again. So did Charles White’s Homage to Sterling Brown, a painting that hadn’t been on display during my previous visit because of renovations. In it, Sterling Brown sits, holding a target before him.

Other works have, of course, arrested my attention. I vividly recall just staring at Picasso’s Woman with a Crow for long, long minutes at the Toledo Museum of Art. The colors of the Blanton’s 17th-Century copperplate paintings hold my attention in the same way. But neither the Picasso nor the copperplates forced me to think the way Valdez and White did.

We Make Because We Must

That was the next thing I wrote down: “We make because we must.” I’ve been messing about with writing with various degrees of seriousness since I was in third grade. (That’s when I first tried to write a novel.) I distinctly remember telling a teammate at an alumni tournament that I was working on my dissertation but kept getting distracted by wanting to write stories. (Best handler I ever played with, and a fine writer himself.) I don’t really seem able to stop.

That drive to make art doesn’t go away just because our hearts are sore. It’s harder. Some days it’s impossible. I don’t have it figured out beyond trying to take breaks from social media (especially Twitter, which seems to be fine-tuned to send me into fury or despair). Some days I get things written. Some days I don’t. Some days I do a bit of research. Some days I just stare out the window and think about made-up places.

There is no transcendence, only empathy.

When I was in high school, a wonderful English teacher got me the opportunity to go to a writing workshop near Sun Valley. While out in the woods near a stream, I was, for lack of a better term, thunderstruck by a poem. The world slowed down and sped up simultaneously. I could not make the words come out of my fingers as fast as they were coming to my brain. It was a paroxysm of language that felt more like a beast I was riding than a poem I was writing. I thought then that I had found some kind of transcendence.

The closest I ever really came to re-experiencing that feeling was a few years later during a breakdown. The quality of feeling like a spectator to my own mind, of grappling with something impossibly large, was nearly the same. I did not for an instant think of it as transcendence.

That statement up above, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” came to me in the art museum as I reflected on Vincent Valdez’s work, on Charles White’s work. I don’t have an entirely firm grasp on what, precisely, it means, but it resonates for me. It resonates so much for me that for the first time in a very long while I caught myself thinking about Capital-T Truth.

The idea of transcendence I had as a teenager, whether I knew it or not, was Romantic: the solitary artist walks in the wilderness, searching for the sublime. That sublime thing is higher and deeper than our usual perception and understanding, glimpsed and able to be glimpsed only in moments. It was absolutely a Capital-T Truth that only the most profound artists and thinkers could find. When they did, it was transportive.

There’s something to the idea that art can take you outside your habitual boundaries of self. That’s why we fall in love with stories. That’s why I could stare at that Picasso and be sucked in. That’s why I felt the need to return several times to the Valdez paintings, why they stuck with me after my first visit. Beyond the skill of their rendering and the brilliance of the approach, the images pushed me past my habits, past my usual inclinations. That’s empathy, and art puts you in a place where you cannot help it. You can’t “well, actually…” a painting. You can’t fence in a piece of music with questions. You can’t turn away from the discomfort a story might make you feel without turning away from the story itself.

We make art so we can understand. As creators, the process sometimes becomes the understanding. Sometimes we have something specific to say. Sometimes, we even manage to say that thing. We want to be understood even if—especially if—what we’re expressing can’t be articulated. Sound transcendental? Maybe. But there’s a hell of a difference between Ferdinand David’s wanderer up on his foggy hilltop, looking for something beyond human experience, and looking at Charles White’s interpretation of Sterling Brown against a backdrop of the man’s achievements even as he sits holding a brightly-colored target.

None of this means art “must” be about social justice, or about politics, or about experiences that cross the vast gulfs humans have collectively inflicted on one another. (Be wary of anybody who says “art must.”) We can make art about what we know intimately, experience things that remind us of what we already understand. Those are choices we face as makers. We just have to remember that choosing to avoid hard questions doesn’t make them go away, and that the avoidance is also a choice.

As a fantasy writer, there’s a degree of escape in my work. If I want to write a world that never experienced chattel slavery, I get to do that (although it leads to a lot of questions about what an industrial revolution might look like). I can tell myself “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and just do it. Try it, anyway. I make because I must.

Really, though, I make stories and go experience art because art is a place where empathy lives. We make because we must, because we wish to understand and to be understood and to connect, whether it’s with another person or an idea or an experience. It’s awesome, in both the casual and formal senses of the word.

We make because we must; there is no transcendence, only empathy. I feel like those are semi-colon close, and want to keep working on figuring out how.

Bones?

NfN: Garth Nix’s Sabriel

I brought home Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy (which has expanded to include five novels and two novellas) from my classroom library with competing, vague senses that I had read the first book before and also that I “should” read it. I thought I had read Sabriel, the first novel, in middle school, which, given the publication date, is impossible. I think, at some point in the past, I must have picked it up and read part of it. Reading it yesterday, I certainly didn’t have the sense I’d read it before. Mostly, I wanted something to hold my attention away from the news and social media. Happily, I found a good book.

Overview

Sabriel is the titular character of the first novel in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. At 18, she is just about ready to graduate from boarding school when her family history catches up with her. That family history comes from the other side of the Wall, a magical construct that (mostly) divides the kingdom of Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom. Ancelstierre has early 20th century technology (cars, machine guns, and electric lights). The Old Kingdom instead has magic of a sort that keeps technology from functioning. Some magic bleeds across the Wall, particularly when the wind comes out of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel’s boarding school is close enough to draw on that magic, but the farther south one travels, the more magic ebbs.

The Plot

After the prologue, we first see Sabriel resurrecting a fellow student’s pet bunny. Shortly thereafter, she receives a sending from her father, Abhorsen, delivering her his sword and bells. (The bells are used by necromancers to bind and manipulate the dead.) Intent on finding her father, Sabriel leaves school, crosses the wall, and discovers that “Abhorsen” is a title, not a name, and that with her father dead (it’s complicated), she must become the Abhorsen. She struggles to rescue her father with the help of Mogget, who is not actually a cat, and, eventually, Touchstone, a young man displaced in time. They battle the restless dead, and eventually confront the Big Bad.

It’s a brisk adventure story that touches on enough of personal and setting history to make the relatively small cast shine.

The Cool Thing to Consider

I said “brisk.” I meant it. This novel flies, particularly in the first half.

Pacing is a tricky beast, one I wrangled with a lot as I hashed out the beta draft to Ghosts of the Old City (which I finally finished on Monday, incidentally). Too fast, and you end up with an action movie: trying to solve plot holes by jumping over them fast enough that the audience doesn’t notice. Taken to extremes, you end up losing the meaningful connections between events that make “plot” more than “sequence.” Too slow, and you lose the reader in a morass of…whatever your slowdown is (exposition, tangents, sidequests, S. Morgenstern’s loving descriptions of trees…).

Sabriel is brilliantly paced. The prologue sets a tone and suggests the mysteries that will come in the novel proper. We get fifteen pages to establish Sabriel-the-student and receive the mysterious package, both, followed by just enough time at the Wall to give us a hint of the Abhorsen’s responsibilities and the dangers that creep the Old Kingdom. All together (prologue included), that takes us to page 62.

The next 130 pages are, effectively, an extended chase scene. Sabriel is pursued by her enemies, finding respite briefly enough that she can do little but refresh her resources. It is not until her headlong flight results in a literal crash that Nix allows the reader to pause for breath. This is a risk for a number of reasons. First, Sabriel doesn’t have much to interact with. It is hard to reveal new aspects of a character when you keep her in the same situation. Second, it’s difficult to get the right balance of power for the opposition. Nix needs it to be overwhelming enough to chase Sabriel from even her best refuge, but not so overwhelming that the reader doubts the plausibility of her continued escape.

Nix manages this by altering the terms of the chase, gradually amplifying the magical interventions as Sabriel gets further and further away from the Wall. (This, in itself, is a neatly done bit of macro-scale writing.) Sabriel begins her journey on skis. After a fight with a frightening (but somewhat easily beaten) monster, she soon has to abandon her skis as a more powerful enemy appears behind her. This enemy could clearly overpower her…until she reaches a sanctuary that seems to offer protection. Then the fresh enemy proves to have resources capable of breaching that sanctuary, forcing Sabriel to flee once more via more powerful magic…

Framed this way, it sounds like simple escalation. It does not read like simple escalation, though, because Sabriel’s emotional state provides continuity. As readers, we see her fear, her frustration, her bewilderment. By keeping us grounded in the single character’s perspective, Nix is able to use what goes on around Sabriel to pretty incredible effect. That’s how he manages to zip along to the soft reset that occurs about 200 pages in without losing the reader or the thread of his narrative.

(After Sabriel’s crash, the story pivots from her flight to her assumption of the quest “proper,” and the pacing, while still great, works in the more usual way.)

What We Nick from this Novel

There are many ways to counterbalance pace. For Nix in the first part of Sabriel, that counterbalance is characterization. To a lesser extent, it’s also worldbuilding. Nix can whisk us along through quite a lot of material because he balances the frenetic pace of the action with what we’ll need to understand later in the novel. The reverse can apply, too, balancing slow parts of the action with dynamic changes to character.

Alternative lesson: take your chases to interesting places. Give your characters some interesting places to and modes of travel as they run for their lives or chase down their nemeses.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is available as a boxed set (ISBN: 978-0-06-073419-0). Sabriel, as a single volume, can be found with ISBN 978-0-06-447183-1.

Thinking Cap Swap

capsforsale

(Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina)

The parallel universe in which I hold graduate degrees in English isn’t that far from this one. For some reason, it never occurred to me to not go to graduate school. (I’m not entirely sure why this was, but it’s probably related to the time when somebody called a family reunion asking for Dr. _____________ and it could have been any one of seven people.) The only real question for me was whether I’d do English or music. I’d backed my way into my music major. (Instrumental lesson waivers are a gateway drug.) English seemed like a natural fit. I’d always been good with words. Why didn’t I dance with the one what brung me?

The short answer? I was sick of close reading. It felt less like a particular kind of thinking cap and more like a straitjacket.

I was never quite a traditional English major. My department allowed me to carve out a plan that balanced literature classes and creative writing classes. This allowed me sufficient training in literary theory and good writing that I started hating some of the genre fiction I’d so loved in high school. It never made me fall in love with “literary” writing, though, because so much of the stuff took itself so very, very seriously. It felt pretentious and the way we read it felt even more so. I wanted to read books without having to pick them apart.

I had a student this year who complained bitterly about Jane Eyre. It will be her Tess of the d’Urbervilles—a novel that I read and hated in high school and am still somewhat bitter about. I don’t feel bad about assigning Jane. There are much worse nineteenth-century novels out there in terms of length or difficulty or things to discuss. I also have a responsibility to get students ready for the exam the College Board writes. That exam include plenty of pre-twentieth century works. Jane Eyre had ample pedagogical merit, even if some students hated it.

The student’s seething made me think about that time at the end of my undergrad when I decided that I couldn’t put myself through who knew how many years of picking apart novels. It felt like killing them. Going for an MFA seemed useless, too, because I’d found my creative writing classes almost as bad as the literary ones for pretentiousness. (To be fair, it came mostly from the students. The professors I worked with at Mac, including the fantastic Wang Ping, were great.) I just didn’t want to hate what I read or wrote.

I’ve done a lot of writing since then, and a lot of reading. Some of it I’ve hated even as I was doing it. (Yay! Grad school!) There’s no doubt I’ve done at least my share of pretentious things, probably more. You don’t make a comparative studies omelette without breaking a few common sense eggs, and I still cringe at some of the things I forced into my master’s thesis. (Mikhail Bakhtin and mature Harry Partch go together better in theory than in practice.) I can’t get away from analysis. I tried! I was going to “just” do composition, but I added music history because I missed writing papers.

What I couldn’t understand—couldn’t have understood, really—when I was developing close reading skills as an undergrad (or, as it felt sometimes, having them inflicted upon me) is that it gets better. Getting better at close reading has meant I can pick up important pieces as I go along without having to let the close reading devour the attention that could be aimed at all the other good stuff in the writing.

Small digression: My college roommate was increasingly obsessed with traditional Irish music. He played it in our dorm room as he worked on learning tunes from recordings. At first, I could tell the tunes apart. Then they all started sounding the same to me, because there are a lot of similar patterns across the various jigs and reels. He insisted that when you listened enough, they started sounding different again.

Close reading is kind of like that. When you’re learning it, it can be miserable because every text becomes this series of discrete semiotic fragments—just a bunch of disassembled jigsaw pieces. Combine that with a 170-year-old text, and I’m sympathetic to the student I mentioned earlier literally burning her copy of Jane Eyre when we were done with it. When you have more practice with close reading, you can spot the shapes of the puzzle pieces without losing sight of the image.

…which doesn’t necessarily stop you from having plenty of pretentious things to say about it.

I have a long “want to write” list this summer, and a lot of related chores: reading up on 1848, revisions on existing pieces, blog posts, essays about some of the great novels I’ve read in the last year. Some of those things require my close reading cap. Other things require the “say something clever” cap. Others—most of them, really—require the “shut up and write” cap. The juggling of such hats isn’t easy. It wasn’t something I could do when I was sixteen and busy hating Tess. It wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was picking graduate programs. Now, it’s something I do out of habit as I bounce between the different paths of my wordwork.

Hopefully the monkeys stay away.