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Institutions and Curriculum

On Staying Alive

As I look back at a productive sabbatical year, and ahead to my new role as professor emeritus, I have been thinking about staying alive: of coming to terms with the “Mark Long project”–whatever that might turn out to be. Recently, too, a friend asked for a link to my essays in The Staying Alive Project, and I thought it would be useful to pull together links to the twenty short essays I wrote on the promises and perils of academic life.

The Staying Alive Project began as a conversation with John Tallmadge in 2006. Our conversations led to a workshop for academic professionals at the Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the summer of 2007, and then in ASLE sessions and panels at the biennial conferences through the 2019 ASLE gathering in Davis, California.

Over the years, we also led conversations about the challenges of academic life with colleagues at colleges and universities across the country, and invited guest posts on our Staying Alive Blog, including John Knott, Michael P. Branch, Sarah Jaquette Ray, and Stephen Siperstein. I have also published a series of essays on academic departments and institutions in academic journals and essay collections.

The grounding premise of the Project is spelled out on our web site: “Like other learned professions, academia offers a model career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This organizing fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, and thence to tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. While many careers do indeed unfold along this path, many others diverge to a greater or lesser degree. But at every point along the way, one’s experience reflects the interplay of three fundamental factors: the person, the profession, and the institution. And much quiet desperation arises from ignorance of their nature and influence. We are interested in a conversation about these factors and how they operate across the phases of an academic career.

“Drawing inspiration from Eric Erickson’s life stages, we define three major phases of academic life across three dimensions of experience.  Each of these phases—graduate school, junior faculty, and senior faculty—offers payoffs that are also challenges or costs. At each stage, people experience seduction followed by betrayal-or, in more benign circumstances, disillusionment. Our vision is to cultivate a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.”

Now that I am in transition to a new phase of life and work, I may be turning again to reflect on these questions.

On Staying Alive: Occasional Essays on the Promises and Perils of Academic Life (2009––2019)

A Writing Prompt

When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

Some Thoughts on Identity and Integrity

Contingency, Collaboration and the Justification of the Humanities

The Value of Professional Mentoring

Preparation and Strain

Endings and Beginnings

Striking a Balance

The Bureaucratization of the Imaginative

Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

The Warrior Phase

Rethinking (Academic) Success 3

It Don’t Come Easy: Thoughts on the Citizen Phase of Academic Life

Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

Neither For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Continuing the Conversation

The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

Only Connect

Redefining Service

Teaching the Prose of William Carlos Williams

For many teachers, particularly those less familiar with modernist writing, Williams’ prose is, to quote a 1966 assessment by A. Kingsely Weatherhead, “to a great extent, hit or miss. There are on the one hand the brilliant perceptions” and there are on the other hand, he writes, “the kind of floundering around, the compulsive repetition with variations of a word that has a kind of numinous appeal to him, found for example in ” The Poem as a Field of Action'” (SE pp. 280-291), where he doesn’t rightly know what he’s about at all.” In 1969, however, Linda Welshimer Wagner articulated a more sympathetic approach, calling attention to Williams’ improvisational prose style. “The personal and “idiomatic quality” of Williams’ prose—including his essays, The Great American Novel, the Autobiography, and the letters—present the reader with a difficulty. “Instead of logic,” Wagner concludes, Williams gives us truly personal improvisation.” The example she gives is from Marianne Moore:

Surely there is no poetry so active as that of today, so unbound, so dangerous to the mass of mediocrity, if one should understand it, so fleet, hard to capture, so delightful to pursue. It is clarifying in its movements as a wild animal whose walk corrects that of men.

For Wagner, the numerous qualifying phrases and the esoteric simile illustrate some of Williams’ weakest stylistic practices. The control he achieves in much of his fiction is less evident when the poet himself speaks. Williams’ painful honesty, his groping, sometimes obscures rational progression, but never the effect of genuine speech—terse, emotional, stubborn, perceptive (140). I want to suggest, more specifically, that the moments where we miss rational progression are the moments when the literary qualities of Williams’ prose are most acute. “There is no confusion—only difficulties” Williams admonishes in Spring and All. To follow improvisational moments in any form of experimental art is to follow the mind recognizing itself as it intervenes in the familiar.

My claim in this essay is that there may be no more productive space for the practice of literary and cultural studies than the prose writings of William Carlos Williams. In the undergraduate classroom, in particular, Williams’ prose invites students to wrestle with practical questions about reading, thinking, and writing. His prose is alive with the theoretical questions that arise in practice as well: questions about linguistic forms, language and thought, the relations between ourselves and the world.

The pedagogical value of Williams’ prose follows from my recognition that my most productive experiences as a teacher have roots in what I have learned from Williams and what Williams has made possible for my students. In first-year writing courses, general education humanities electives, historical or thematic surveys in the major, or project-based work in upper-level courses, Williams has proven a generous, challenging, and provocative companion. For the students I teach at a public liberal arts institution—with over forty percent who are the first in their families to attend college—Williams’ generous and vital commentaries on reading, thinking, and writing have been extraordinarily useful in both English and general studies courses.

There are places to go when considering Williams’ pedagogical values and strategies. But “(A Sketch for) the Beginnings of an American Education” is perhaps the most instructive place to begin. The sketch, near the end of The Embodiment of Knowledge, is a provocation. “A good beginning,” Williams insists, “would be to abolish in American schools (at least) all English departments and to establish in [their] place the department of Language” (EK 146). The fault with education, Williams will say in the section “The Beginnings of an American Education,” is not the students at all “but with those to whom it has been asked to look: to its elders, the leaders, the professors. . .” (3). Anyone who has become weary of general comments by teachers about the poor preparation or skills of their students, or who, like me, has found a response that goes something like “the problem with student writing is not the students,” will understand what Williams is getting at here.

The department of Language that Williams might envision follow from the examples he provides of what we might today call “student-centered” learning, or pedagogical methods organized around promoting student agency. In the department of Language professors would be less concerned with disciplinary knowledge or skills and inclined toward the approach to language in Gregory Ulmer, Nancy Comley, and Robert Scholes’ Textbook: An Introduction to Literary Language—a reader that, as it happens, includes in the section on narrative Williams’ “The Use of Force.” First published in 1988, and revised and expanded in 1995 and 2001, Textbook opens with a letter to the student

As you enter this book you will find all kinds of texts: some are usually called ‘literary’ and some are not. This mixture is essential to our method. We do not want to offer you a collection of ‘master’ works that ask for your passive submission, but a set of texts that you can work and play with, increasing your own understanding of fundamental textual processes and your own ability to use the written word. We hope to help you feel more at home in the house of language, and we are confident that a better command of written language will contribute to a better life.

This emphasis on texts—poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, fragments and more completed work—and the invitation for students to play with language and become more aware of textual processes aligns well with Williams’ department of Language.

The department of Language Williams might envision can be further imagined through a comment on the practice of modern writing in “The Modern Primer,” in which Williams asks “What is meaning of Gertrude Stein’s work?” His answer—“Language is made up of words, the spaces between words and their configuration” (17)—offers a useful reminder when a classroom of students engaged in a close reading of a text laments that if only they could read “between the lines” or “more deeply.” It is useful because these metaphors imprison students in a misconception. For when one actually reads between lines one finds white space. Similarly, when one reads “deeply” one lands on the next page. Williams’ prose writings offer touchstone sentences that demystify the ways people trained in the humanities engage with texts. Furthermore, in “The Embodiment of Knowledge etc.,” Williams observes that “The basis of all bad reasoning is in the beginning” (41) and of the necessity “to conceive clearly the materials of our thought” (42). The focus on language must also address the challenge of students who appear to have learned in their English classes that meaning is something that can be found in words—students who have essentially ceded the active process of making meaning to the authority or the commonplace understandings that replace the experience of reading with the conclusions of other readers.

The essays in The Embodiment of Knowledge are rooted in a tradition of thinking about education and institutions that runs from Emerson through Dewey to the robust scholarship of teaching and learning that circulates mostly in the pedagogical domains of rhetoric and composition. Ron Loewinsohn’s introductory essay to The Embodiment of Knowledge provides a summary of these roots. “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads,” Loewinsohn writes, “is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are on-going activities in which we create ourselves from day to day” (xii). Across the early and late prose writings—and of course in the poetry and poetics—one finds this broadly humanistic understanding of attention to engaged inquiry, an active imagination, and self determination. Williams’ prose is useful as we learn to empower students—encouraging them to become more aware of their place in the developmental arc of late adolescence and supporting them as they struggle with authority, perspective, and autonomy.

At the same time, Williams’ concern with language, history, and culture, as Brian Bremen has demonstrated, comprise a “cultural diagnostics” that, in Bremen’s description, is surprisingly congruent with the literary and cultural work we routinely ask of our students. Williams prose writings, in particular, offers students clear insight into the purpose of humanistic study. Bremen notes that Williams’ poetics embrace ideas about literature, history, medicine, gender relations, and politics. And Bryce Conrad, especially in his 1990 book Refiguring America: A Study of In the American Grain, offers teachers an incisive description of William’s historiographical method—what Conrad calls Williams’ “open” history focused on the active process of making historical knowledge.

What does this active process of making historical knowledge look like in an undergraduate classroom? Reading and reflecting on literary and cultural history with Williams, in a course I taught in American Studies and Women’s Studies, a student decided to write about the book, In the American Grain, and two essays, Williams’ 1934 “The American Background: America and Alfred Stieglitz” and Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision” that was published in a 1972 issue of College English dedicated to Women, Writing and Teaching.

The student quoted Rich’s description of awakening that opens the essay—”It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful”— and found in Williams’ description and critique of history a method not unlike Rich’s material and feminist critique. The student argued that both Williams and Rich insist that we examine, in Rich’s words, “how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see-and therefore live-afresh.” The modernist William and the feminist Rich share an imperative for what Rich describes as “re-vision”: “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.

This example, and there are innumerable others, have shown me some of the ways Williams’ prose writing enter the minds of and inspire our students. Most recently, I have taught Williams in the tradition of the essay from Montaigne—discovering that Carl Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French, in fact, include Williams’ “An Essay on Virginia” in their sourcebook Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. (It is one of four selections from the 1920s, Williams appears between Virginia Woolf and Hilaire Belloc.) In an essay on the text, Stuckey- French reminds his reader that “the genteel essay was under siege by 1925, but it was not clear what would replace it” (105), For Williams, Stuckey- French argues, “the debate over the future of America and the future of the essay were linked by the question of form, for he believed that the transformation of American culture rested on the transformation of the forms of that culture” (98). Stuckey-French points out that Williams “was unique among American modernists in his decision to write an essay on the essay” (100), arguing that “Williams develops and demonstrates his theory of the essay, arguing that the formless form of the essay mirrors the form of American democracy, which rests on an unresolvable tension between individualism and conformity” (97).

Williams is exquisitely aware of the need to imagine ways of writing beyond cultural and discursive commonplaces. And his prose writings unsettle distinctions between the personal and the academic, between lived experience and the thinking of others. As Loewinsohn writes in his introduction to The Embodiment of Knowledge, “Implicit in Williams’ notion of the reader as the center of the writing in his own present as he reads is the assumption that discovery is a process, that education and knowledge are ongoing activities in which we create ourselves from day-to-day” (xii). Williams notion is that when students learn the pleasures of experiencing higher standards than what they are used to, they become aware of these standards and enlarge their own sense of what can be done.

Works Cited

Conrad, Bryce. Refiguring America: A Study of William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Cardozo, Karen M. “Essaying Democracy: The Post/Modern Intertexts of Kingston, Rodriguez, and Williams.” William Carlos Williams Review 27.1 (Spring 2007): 1–23

Kinnahan, Linda. Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Moore, Daniel. “Trauma and “The Use of Force”.” William Carlos Williams Review. 29.2 (2009): 161–175. Project Muse

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as (Re)Vision.” College English 34.1. Women, Writing and Teaching (October 1972): 18–30

Stuckey-French, Ned. “‘An Essay on Virginia’: William Carlos Williams and the Modern(ist) Essay.” American Literature 70.1 (1998): 97–130.

 Wagner, Linda Welshimer. “The Unity of His Art.” The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association 2.1. Poetic Theory/Poetic Practice (1969): 136–144.

Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. “William Carlos Williams: Prose, Form, and Measure.” ELH 33.1 (1966): 118–131

What If?

Experiments often begin with “what if” questions. As I compose this post in the fall of 2020 one of the questions emerging at Keene State College is whether we will be able to support a portfolio platform to promote college-wide learning. What we mean by “college-wide learning” is less clear; and the connections we hope to make possible in our community of teaching and learning keep running up against the persistent inertia of institutional life.

We want our students to make connections across their experiences both in and outside the classroom. We want faculty and staff and students to work together to build learning pathways, or a network, that will integrate their learning as well as connect their college experiences to the first stages of their life and career beyond school. So far so good.

For some of us these aspirations are familiar. Some time ago, back in 2007 to be a bit more precise, a similar “what if?” question emerged : “What if the faculty and staff of Keene State College were given a place to blog?” The Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive offers a glimpse of that dusty virtual page in the vast archive of the web where that fabulous question lives on:

Screen shots of :KeeneWeb are from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

The experiment was a publishing platform. Our in-house instructional designer Mike Caulfield explained in a blog post Starlings in the Slipstream, would help us develop more meaningful communications and connections at the College. Mike connected the project to Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington, who is another protagonist in the history of this question: for he had helped to design a platform to facilitate communications among faculty, staff, and students at UMW that would evolve into something more, what Jim called “networked learning.”

Back at Keene State College, Mike (and Jenny Darrow, his colleague in the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) made possible some creative work using a Word Press multi-user blogging system with the option of building in RSS feeds for content. A few of us had already set up professional web pages on our own. (My forays in building a digital presence on the web began a couple of years after coming to the College, in 2000, with the assistance of a digital consultant, Maria Erb.) But a wider network began to become visible and by 2011 the Keeneweb Blog Directory listed over 200 active sites––faculty pages, teaching and research projects, and digital hubs for institutional initiatives. But the Internet Archive also shows that the network was active from 2008 to 2011.

In an early presentation to the campus community, a former colleague who I worked with in the first-year writing program, Tracy Mendham, pulled together a slide set and talk, “Pathway to Pedagogy,” in which she advocated for networked learning. Tracy was a trailblazer who taught a section of essay writing with the title “A Blog of One’s Own” in which her students found themselves writing on a blog. At the end of her presentation, she offered some advice that included two points that have guided many of us since:

  • Stop worrying and learn to love the Web
  • Make teaching and learning an experience for yourself as well as your students

The first piece of advice is an artifact in a discourse of which we were a part, a reminder of where we were––that is, worrying about the web. The second piece of advice is what I might want to describe as a threshold concept. For while the Wayback timeline represents the demise of a brilliant idea to support connected teaching and learning at Keene State College, it is also the case that a number of people have been thinking and making connections in new ways ever since. In fact, with the dedication and hard work of Jenny Darrow––one through line in this story––and my colleague in Biology, the open education superhero Karen Cangialosi––we are no longer worried about the web. We are instead working alongside faculty and students exploring the experience of teaching a learning at KSCopen.

My own professional work was irrevocably transformed. At the time a department chair, I began building things: a site to facilitate faculty exchange and make visible the extraordinary work of my colleagues; a web site for the English department; an English department course and syllabus archive; and a site for our Thinking and Writing faculty. Too, I found myself blogging and discovering the generative process of representing my professional work. My goal was to make visible the work of a college English professor. My working assumption was that a more visible story of a professor and students at work might offer reasons for people to value the intellectual work of teachers and students in public higher education.

Making Connections

But the most lasting and transformative impact of this moment at Keene State College was in the learning experience of my students. Tracy’s pedagogical insights into what she called at the time “social computing as means of facilitating academic discourse and developing writing skills” opened my mind. I could then fully appreciate what a colleague of mine was doing with his students at Washington College. Sean’s Comp| Post site was another node in a developing idea.

The idea, I can now see, was the network. My project exploration a kind of portolano chart with coordinates and sailing directions for thinking about teaching and learning.

From the British Library Pelagios Project: Portolano. Egerton MS 2855. Public domain.

That is, I had no mappa mundi with which to navigate the parts and the whole. And so I filled in my chart in medias res, learning by going where I had to go: I was learning to navigate open source software, for me Word Press, in an effort to integrate the pieces of my professional and personal life; and, most importantly, my chart began to trace new vectors as my students set up blogs and begin writing and making new connections with me, what they were learning, and their readers.

The idea of a portfolio of artifacts is familiar to those of us trained in the teaching of writing. And I had been using them since I began teaching in graduate school. Student course blogs, though, presented new opportunities to make the idea of an audience for writing, to take one example, less an abstract idea and more a real, lived experience of connecting with readers by writing on the open web. The public portfolio, moreover, led to students making connections across their courses and learning experiences beyond the classroom. Some students built sites that were repurposed for a job search or for projects beyond graduation.

But first and foremost, I was experiencing students learning more about writing, and themselves as writers, by using these tools. The other pedagogical possibilities of digital portfolios were showing up in metacognitive and experiential activities that decades of research has shown to be positively associated with genuine learning. However, what I also came to realize is that if we are going to ask students to engage in metacognitive work then it would make a lot of sense for teachers to model the very learning process that we know can make a difference.

So I started writing with my students. I began building my own portfolio across a semester (and across courses and teaching experiences) to make visible my growth and learning as a teacher. In one instance, I found myself writing a post in a class with students, Houses and Chairs, in which I say that writing on the web

“is different than writing for the web. When you graduate from college you will be writing more for the web. Why might this matter? The musicologist and digital media specialist Kris Schaffer proposes the following answer to the question:

Think about it this way. If I’m the first person to take a primary source, transcribe (or translate) it, and annotate it with hyperlinks, and my public, digital writing gains traction, it will fast become the go-to source at the top of the search results. My hyperlinks and commentary will become the portal to the resources that people engage to gain context, background, and nuance. It’s a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous opportunity, to connect my skills as an academic and a humanist to the issues of the day, in an attempt to bring nuance and truth to the public consciousness.

The essay I am quoting from here is written for students with a particular end in mind: I am (re)introducing them to the hyperlink. At the same time, my intent is to build out an argument about reclaiming the web as a network––enacting the very thing I am writing about. The post is an example of what more and more people have learned recently to call asynchronous pedagogy, or what I have learned to call on my teaching blogs “Teacher Talk.” Perhaps I will write a bit more about this dimension of my pedagogical approach to teaching reading and writing in the coming weeks. For now, though, if anyone is interested, the terminal moraine of these reflections and connections is right here, where you are right now, at The Far Field.

On Rediscovering the Network

What if we really did want our students to make connections across their experiences both in and outside the classroom? What if we really wanted faculty and staff and students to work together to build learning pathways, or a network, to integrate learning as well as to guide students as they connect their college experiences to stages of life or careers outside of school?

One place to start would be with the metaphorical structure of our thinking. Of course networked learning, and the web as a network, has deeper roots. The metaphor of Indra’s Jeweled Net, which appears in the Atharva Veda and is used by the Buddhist Tu- Shun (557-640 B.C.E.) to envision a vast net that includes jewels at each meeting point that represent individual life forms (atoms, cells, units of consciousness) that are interconnected so that a change in one is reflected in all the others. The metaphor has been used, more recently, to describe the complex interconnected networks formed by relationships between objects in a system, in computation, ecological thinking, and in accounts of social networks.

What I am wondering about here is whether this ancient surmise is one antidote to the modern pathology of thinking predicated on individual parts that fuels the individualistic and atomistic patterns of behavior that make it so very difficult to imagine ways to change the conditions of teaching and learning for the better. It is the manner of thinking and being in a system composed of parts––”departments,” “divisions,” “schools,” an so on––that just can’t seem to get around themselves when it is time to move. Most useful, then, at the moment, might be to pursue the provocative question, “what if?”

The question is, once again, the opportunities: how do we hold ourselves accountable to the space of minds thinking together before we develop plans within and beyond the constraints of the established systems of which we are a part?

Featured photo credit: John Dittli