Expertise and Humility

Every year, when research paper season rolls around, I always have a few students that want to cite themselves, use their own ‘knowledge’, or consider themselves experts in their chosen topic. It takes a bit of convincing before they’re willing to acknowledge that maybe they’re not experts in their field at the age of 16 or 17. And yet, something about being a teenager often combines a few years of experience at something and a cocksure attitude and turns out a world full of young ‘experts’. I know this not only because I see it in my classroom, but because I was exactly that same kind of teenager.

I tell students that there are two things I remotely consider myself to be an expert in now that I’m in my mid-thirties, and even then only a beginner expert: teaching secondary English at American curriculum international schools and the field of Octavia Butler studies (within which I wrote my masters thesis). For one, those are very specific fields, because the more expertise we gain, the more specialized we become. Also, while these are the fields I know the most about, have the most experience in, and could readily hold an in-depth conversation with other experts in, they’re also the ones I best know my own deficiencies and areas of necessary growth.

Through the ages, those that we consider the greatest thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and other brilliant people, almost always hit upon this truth. The more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know. Socrates, Aristotle, Einstein, John Lennon, and so many others came to this realization. We’ve got the Dunning-Kruger effect that charts this phenomenon, and so it only makes sense that teenagers especially often fall into a place where it is easy to overestimate their knowledge and understanding; they’re not young children anymore, after all.

Unfortunately, way too many adults don’t grow beyond that either. I know that in some areas, I fall into this category as well. If I’m watching a parkour video, part of my brain is saying, “yeah, I can probably do that” or I’m very convinced that I could have easily scored that goal that the striker so blatantly missed. I was certain it couldn’t be that hard to drive a Formula 1 car until I saw Richard Hammond (a guy who earns his living driving cars) barely manage to get one around a track. I was also convinced I knew how economics worked and what each country was doing wrong, right up until I read up on some basic economics and realized how little I actually knew. We see this happen in everything, from governance, economics, health, and business, to the arts, athletics, and religion. It all seems so simple from the outside.

This is where humility comes in. Maybe we should all approach new topics or areas where we have little experience with a posture of humility. It’s very hard for most of us to admit we don’t know something and so we bluster our way through. Often, we teachers have been very bad at modeling humility for students; I’ve had to be very intentional about responding to student questions with integrity and saying “I don’t know that yet” or “I’m not sure, maybe you should look it up and then tell me.” Because my natural instinct is to answer each question with my gut intuition and make myself seem more knowledgeable than I am. Humility is a prime virtue and we’re not always doing a great job of teaching it.

Similarly, there is a glut of pseudo-experts in every shadowy cranny willing to hammer half-reasonable theories and skewed knowledge into unquestioning minds. When we don’t acknowledge the relevance of expertise in all areas, we easily become puffed up demagogues. A friend of mine recently re-posted this and it rang very true:

“Confirmation bias exists, and only fools think they are free of it. To paraphrase Asimov, your ignorance is not the same as their experience. Genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves. Only ignorant people believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.”

Appreciation of expertise then allows us to hold our beliefs and convictions more loosely. In so many areas, it’s not what people think or believe that bothers me, but the way they hold that belief. When our ‘Truth’ is oozing out, dead and bloodied, from clenched fists, there can’t be much life left in it, no matter what it once was. Instead, we should hold our values and beliefs in open palms, with humility, so that there is room for our understanding and faith to grow, expand, change, and become better. That’s how we hold with humility.

Student Autonomy and the Vulnerable Teacher

I had to have a little chat with my eleventh graders last week. I decided to take the first 10 minutes of class and explain to them two core convictions of my teaching philosophy and how there is often a tension between them.

We had gotten to one of my favorite units, in which we read Lorraine Hansberry’s spectacular play A Raisin in the Sun. It is the only play we read in the American Lit. class and I firmly believe that drama is meant to be performed. So, first we read it as a class, having different students and myself reading the parts, and then we watch a film adaptation (the 1961 version with Hansberry’s screenplay and the amazing Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee).

Over the years, I’ve taught this unit numerous times and I recognize that there are many students who are reluctant to read out loud. Perhaps they don’t feel confident, or they are shy, or they had a bad experience with being required to read in a previous year. But I’ve always had enough students volunteer that we’ve had someone for each character. I tell students they’re not stuck reading that character the entire play and that we’ll switch it up between acts. I tell them that I hope everyone will read at list a little bit, but that no one will be forced to and that I will not be putting anyone on the spot.

This year, I didn’t get enough volunteers when we started Act 1, across both of my English 11 sections. In both, finally one student reluctantly raised their hand to take the final role. But I was already dreading the beginning of Act 2 when we would be reassigning roles and there would be more characters that needed reading.

So I explained to them why I did it this way, and how that is rooted in those two core convictions I hold about how my classroom should operate.

Firstly, I believe we learn best in community. Humans are communal creatures; we like being around each other (even those of us who are more introverted don’t do well in prolonged solitude), and we build on and feed off of each other. The classroom is a prime example of what that can look like and explains in part why online-learning was so difficult for many students and for myself. Each section I teach has a different feel, a unique atmosphere, and it’s because there are different people in the room. We contribute to that culture through our actions, our words, and the choices we make in each moment. I explained to my students that in many ways, they are in charge of the classroom atmosphere, and that the communal learning is beneficial to us all. Nothing encapsulates that quite like a dramatic performance which is an intricate blending of individual performances into a collective production. When we act with our neighbors, our community, our classroom in mind, rather than only looking to our own individual preferences, we can be far more than the sum of our parts.

Secondly, I believe in student autonomy. I hated being called on when I was a student, so I vowed not to be that teacher. Students must have choices, must be allowed to have a say in what and how they learn, and must be allowed to determine their level of investment. That’s how we get intrinsic motivation, rather than carrot/stick education. There are numerous assignments I’ve designed so students can choose how they want to meet the requirements, which topic they want to focus on, or whether they’d like to work individually or in a group (that last one is especially tricky to do well). There are minimum requirements I need from all students in my classroom, and if a student is not meeting them, I will push into their autonomy and obligate those minimum requirements. But beyond those, their level of investment, engagement, and motivation are up to them. And while some students skate through my class doing the bare minimum, others have discovered a love of literature and critical thinking and gone on to study literature in university. I’d say that’s more than worth the trade-off. Because that’s student autonomy.

But student autonomy can be very risky for the teacher, and is often a lot more work. I confessed to my students last week that I’m a person who has to be prepared, to have a plan (and then several backup plans and contingencies in place), and I don’t like like uncertain situations. And when I’m standing in front of a room full of students, asking for volunteers to read, that’s a very vulnerable position for me. There’s no plan B. I’m standing in the tension between the communal aspects of learning and student autonomy and it’s not a comfortable place. But I value them both so highly that I know I need to let go of the control and hand it over to my students, hoping and believing that they will choose to invest in the communal learning.

I think we as teachers foster disengagement, lack of motivation, and an apathy for learning when we hold on to the reins too tightly in our classrooms. Of course how tightly or loosely we hold them is determined quite a bit by the age of our students and the particular needs of each individual class. But many of us (particularly those of us that like to be in control of our surroundings and know what’s going to happen) need to learn how to give an appropriate amount of that control over to our students. Because only then can the learning be truly authentic and intrinsically motivated. We’re the adults in the room and so we should model that vulnerability, rather than being yet another authority in their lives that only ever tells them what to do and doesn’t let them grow into their burgeoning autonomy.

The students heard me. I got numerous volunteers after that, some from among my very quiet students. And I don’t think it was because they felt guilty or pitied me, but because they saw and valued why I had to lean into that awkward moment of waiting for volunteers. They want to be treated as individuals, as human beings with autonomy, and many are willing to overcome their own experiences and inhibitions when we give them the freedom to choose.

A Rich Tapestry

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength. We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of that tapestry are equal in value no matter their color.” ~Maya Angelou~

For a number of years, I’d been sort of vaguely keeping track of the authors I was reading. I wanted to get a sense for what authors I naturally gravitated towards and how diversely I was reading. Most years, my reading was about 60% male and 60% white. As a white male, I decided it was time to be more intentional about my reading selection, so for 2021 I set myself the goal of reading at least 50% of my texts from perspectives/experiences different from my own.

Not only was this a very worthwhile experience with regards to the texts I discovered and read, but also in what it taught me about my own reading habits and preferences. For one, I rarely read books due to their physical proximity—I don’t just walk into a book store or library and find something that looks interesting; for many years I’ve been carefully pulling together my reading list based on recommendations, references, and my own research and growing interests. With such an approach, it wasn’t hard to add a paradigm of authorial diversity to the books I bought or borrowed.

Over the year 2021, I learned much and had a number of realizations:

1. I like to think I’m a person that is willing to question my personal assumptions and beliefs. I believe that holding our positions, values, and ideas with humility not only makes for richer, more authentic interactions with others, but also allows us to grow. No matter how far I think I’ve come, I recognize that there is always more to learn, and most of that recognition comes from reading texts by those who have different life experiences from my own.

I deeply resonated with the identity war taking place in the narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. I’ve been caught in that awkward limbo between cultures, drawn in multiple directions and not quite fitting into any of them. Yet the context of the story, both in Vietnam and in Los Angeles was foreign to me, the choices the narrator makes are heavily contextual and so watching him struggle not only with his identity but also with how that impacts his allegiances was eye opening. I would not have made the choices he did, but nor am I able to fault him for making those choices within the situations he was placed.

2. I cognitively know that across the human species, there is a multiplicity of experiences. And yet it is so hard for us to not automatically take our own experience, background, culture, and values as the norm and measure all others against them. I think the human mind is very good at making judgments and sometimes that is a crucial skill, a matter of survival or deep insight. But judgment, measuring, and seeking to categorize always happens from within our own familiar context which necessitates that those are often subjective. Yet we think of them as objective, even subconsciously. That’s not so say that we should not evaluate the world around us, but rather that doing so with a desire to only quantify, to always put into smaller boxes, to wrap our tiny selves around the largeness of other cultures and different experiences is a futile and misguided effort. It is a constant reminder to me when I read from varied perspectives that my way of seeing the world is not the only right one—I know this, but I often find myself forgetting.

For example: I come from a culture where we love and respect our parents, and those parents give us tools and encourage us to decide our own future paths. There is a lot of value in this but it can also come with anxiety and uncertainty about that future. In numerous instances, particularly in Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, I came across interactions between children and their parents that differ from that. Respecting parents includes obedience to the ways that parent has planned and provided for their child’s future. Li Lan is responsible not only for honoring her father, but for their family’s standing in Malacca. Her own desires are important, crucial, and central to the story, yet they cannot and should not take precedence in her relationship with her father and Amah. This is a good reminder to me that many of my students interact with their parents in different ways than I do with mine: not better, not worse, but different. And that will change the way they interact with them, with the world, with the decisions they have to make. It helps me to understand them better.

3. No single place, culture, religion or tradition holds a monopoly on the full truth. There is truth (or wisdom, to use a perhaps less fraught term) to be found all over the place, even in traditions and ideologies that we disagree with or that do not resonate with our circumstances. It is very easy to dismiss writers, thinkers, and artists, with whom we disagree wholesale, as though nothing they have to contribute contains value. But that’s a reflection of essentialist, simplistic, and closed thinking that does not believe it can learn from other traditions.

This past year, I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator. A number of his concerns, arguments, and approaches are closely situated in the class and liberation struggles he’s engaged with during the 1960s. I see numerous flaws in his primarily Marxist approach to understanding power dynamics and resistance. And yet, what he offers on the balance between individualized learners and the power of collective engagement with a topic is truly revolutionary (pun most definitely intended). His ideas on bringing students into their own learning process rather than having education be something that is done to them gave words and definition to a primary aspect of my own educational philosophy. And his insistence that collaboration with peers can lead to significant education gains as opposed to the more individualistic approach of western education have helped me to better understand the value of classroom culture, group work, and peer coaching.

It was such a valuable experience last year that it was definitely worth the extra time, effort, and money it took to not just read the works that were more easily accessible, but to be intentional about the authorship of what I was reading. I plan to follow a similar pattern this year and look forward to what new authors I will discover, what new ideas I’ll get to mull over, and which new worlds will unfold themselves through the writings of those who are different from me.

Jacket Art of 'Elatsoe' by Rovina Cai

Reading Native American Literature

I’ve been teaching my American Literature class for a number of years, tinkering with it, switching out texts, and trying to find the right balance of stories. Originally, the only Native American stories in the curriculum were some myth retellings from the first chapter of an old literature textbook. And those retellings were not by Native American authors.

I began a quest to read more Native American fiction, to explore that rich field of literature. It started as a way to better include their voices in my classroom, but has since introduced me to new favorite authors, more wholesome ways to see the world, and has taught me numerous important lessons. Firstly, I learned that there is no commonly accepted terminology for referring to the indigenous peoples of the American continents. Some prefer Native American, some American Indian, and others First Americans, Indigenous Americans, or First Nations. And yet all prefer to be closely associated with their tribe, rather than to be lumped together with others that often have very different beliefs, customs, and ways of living.

Trauma and Healing

N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa writer and winner of a Pulitzer prize made for a great starting point in my reading. His novel House Made of Dawn and his folklore collection The Way to Rainy Mountain were not only very well written but utilized a dream-like language that provided both a distinct distance from where I sat reading but also a strange intimacy.

I learned that trauma is not only a thing of the past, but something that continues on into the present. The repercussions of tragedy in the past rippled into the present and the future, are passed from generation to generation. Leslie Marmon Silko of the Laguna Pueblo likewise captures this in her excellent and heart-breaking novel Ceremony. What I loved about it is the focus on healing through reconnecting to ones roots, and that the internal wounds of war need not require more violence.

A Different Kind of Justice

One of all time favorite authors is Louise Erdritch, an Ojibwe writer from Minnesota/North Dakota. Hands-down, she’s one of the best writers I’ve encountered in the last few years, with novels such as The Plague of Doves and Love Medicine. But my first introduction to her writing was The Round House which absolutely captured my admiration. I found the portrayal of justice in the book a poignant and timely reminder that we don’t all define justice the same way and that we don’t all experience its privileges and deficiencies the same way. The main character’s father is a judge on their reservation in North Dakota, and so watching young Joe grapple with what happened to his mother while navigating the overlapping justices of native vs non-native lands is a stark reminder that what we value and our position in the world colors how we view justice.

The Present Matters

Most people do not think of Native Americans in the present. Their names, cultures, and triumphant achievements are often relegated to the past and when we do think of them in the present, we often bring up only images of poverty on reservations, casinos, and alcoholism. Yet this is an unfair and hugely detrimental portrayal. Tommy Orange of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma writes specifically about lives of urban Natives, setting his novel There There in Oakland, California. While I found the number of characters a bit disjointed, the blend of stories, the mixture of personality types, and the powerful experiences in the novel were not only eye-opening, but inspiring and hopeful. I so much appreciated his conversations around cultural identity, adapting to changing times, finding family, and speaking out stories.

Similarly, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, who is Ojibwe from Michigan, traces a vibrant native community in modern day Sault Ste. Marie. Her main character, 18yr old Daunis is biracial and is navigating multiple worlds while also being a teenager trying to find her place. Many of the elements of the book are reminiscent of so other YA novels but are heightened by her journey of finding out what it means to be a Native American woman. The combination of well-trodden teenage concerns and unfamiliar cultural navigation make for an unforgettable mix. This was not my favorite of the books I read, yet Daunis and her journey keep coming back to mind.

Wisdom of the Elders

A common image that runs through almost all these stories is the wisdom of the older generations. We from most western countries have lost some aspects of the role that older people can and should play in our societies. While the world moves on and changes, their experience and wisdom can attain an ageless quality if we are willing to listen.

Perhaps my favorite discovery was Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe. She is Lipan Apache, which infuses her story through her main character, Ellie, and her family. Besides just being a fantastic story, what stood out to me was the role of the whole family. So much young adult fiction is about teenagers going out and making dumb decisions, trying to cut the strings to their families, and striking out on some individualistic quest. Not so here. Ellie constantly comes to her parents and elders for advice, uses their wisdom, and as such makes wise and mature decisions. This was such a refreshing book in that it reflects the capabilities of a smart teenager and does not rely on gimmicky plot devices to provide tension.

There are a lot more excellent Native American stories out there and I’m looking forward to discovering them. Any recommendations are heartily welcomed. This only reaffirms my belief that when I read outside of my own experience and upbringing, I learn a lot more about the world and the many different people in it.

*Image is the Jacket Art for Elatsoe drawn by Rovina Cai*

Teaching Dune

Speculative fiction makes for an excellent teaching tool, in particular with how it requires our minds to be flexible when reading. In stretching the bounds of our every day realities, fantasy and science fiction writers are still exploring themes common to the human experience (to the best of my understanding, most authors are writing for a human audience). The changes in perspective, the hypothetical realities, the extrapolation of ideas, all allow for a unique and valuable approach to teaching.

A few years ago, I convinced my school to let me add Frank Herbert’s Dune to my AP Literature curriculum. As it’s a longer text, I have students read it over the summer and then it’s the first text we study together. Some students love it, some struggle with it, and a certain number don’t quite get it until we start our discussions in class. It makes for a powerful beginning to our year together, setting the groundwork for much that is to come.

1. It helps to break the notion that there is a massive disparity between ‘genre fiction’ like SF and what we study in school: ‘literature’. Literary quality can be found in all manner of books, and it meets many students where they are. For so much of their schooling, they’ve differentiated between the stuff they’ve had to read for English class and what they read for fun. Numerous students, after reading Dune, mention that they appreciate being able to study a different type of text, something they might have picked up for fun, and that it has changed how they approach all their reading.

2. Structurally, it taps into a number of common narrative patterns, though without being too obvious. Yes, it’s a bildungsroman; yes, we can trace the hero’s journey; some of the non-linear components to the storytelling allow for really in-depth discussions about narrative purpose. What’s up with Princess Irulan’s epigraphs? Why do we get to know who the traitor is way before the protagonist does? These structural insights set the stage for many conversations to come about other texts.

3. Once students adjust to all the weird names of places, characters, and objects, it’s an incredibly vibrant and well-crafted sub-creation (to use Tolkien’s word). It lets me introduce setting as a significant component of the story; too often when we discuss setting in other classes and about other books, students can explain the times and places but have a much harder time actually showing the significance it brings to the text. And the planet of Arrakis, painfully forced into the position as a volatile nexus in an interplanetary conflict, readily provides lots of analytical opportunities; students see the role of the Spice not just for the Empire, but for the characters. The lack of water on a desert planet is closely tied both to the threat of death and the hope for an ecologically flourishing future.

4. Dune provides us with a shared text that we keep referring back to. I quickly lost count of the number of times it would show back up in our discussions last year as students made connections and saw similarities. When introducing new concepts or when I needed a ready example, it was easy to relate it back to Dune and I knew the student would be familiar with it. Christ-figures, symbols, passage of time, plot vs. story vs. narrative, contrasting characters, foreshadowing, and plenty of others. It was also an excellent book for teaching students how to discuss themes in a knowledgeable way, setting them up for seeing the topics that they’ve been taught to recognize in works of literature and having them grapple with how they introduce meaning into the text.

5. Much later in the year, when we get to post-colonial criticism, we’ve got other texts we focus our analysis on (Things Fall Apart & Heart of Darkness), but even here, students keep coming back to Dune. They may not have recognized the colonial impact on Arrakis by the Empire when they first read it, but they do later; it helps them to see the pattern of how these questions and a lens like post-colonial criticism can be applied to multiple works, yield different answers, and yet still be bound around a similar topic or concern.

6. It allows me to readily introduce a running theme of my class that is vital to being successful in AP Literature: oftentimes, to make sense of something, we must be willing and able to hold different—even contradictory—ideas simultaneously and muddle our way through the complexity between them. Many of the questions posed by literature are not about finding the ‘right’ answer, but about identifying the areas of complexity and dancing in the tension, reveling in the ambiguity, and learning to articulate nuanced thoughts in areas where there is no simple solution. In Dune, the topic that most easily lets us begin talking about this is whether Paul Atreides is bound by the prophecies that surround him, by his own prophetic visions, or whether he is in fact free to choose and chart his own course. Questions of fate vs. free will, of determinism vs. choice, are never simple. By engaging with what Herbert has to say on the topic, students can take a step into the treacherous realm of literary analysis, where there is not the comfort of turning to the back of the textbook to check for the ‘right’ answer.

I love Dune. I really enjoyed it when I first read it back in high school (not so much the ones Herbert wrote after) and have found new details and ideas to appreciate with each rereading. I’m excited to share this experience with my students each year, and based on their responses, the discussions in class, the papers I get to read, they’re finding it as engaging as I do. This year, as we completed our final discussion on the text, a student said, “Thanks for having us read this.” I call that a success.

Teaching The Merry Wives of Windsor

When I first took over teaching my Honors 10 English class, the curriculum included Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That’s an excellent play, but when I saw that many of those students had read Romeo and Juliet the year before, and that the only other Shakespeare plays in our curriculum were Macbeth in Brit. Lit. and Hamlet in AP Literature, I saw a gap.

Shakespeare’s tragedies are spectacular and I’ve since added King Lear to the AP Literature class. But none of our students got to experience a comedy and in college I’d mostly acted in (and co-directed) the comedies. So recently I made a switch and now teach The Merry Wives of Windsor to my 10th graders. I’ve noted a number of benefits:

  1. It’s really funny. In many ways, it is farcical and the students love it. When so much of the literature we study has serious themes and important discussions that often end with a character they cared about dying, the levity brought about by this play made for a good counter-balance. Falstaff in the buckbasket or being disguised as the witch of Brentford is funny whether they understand all the nuances of the character motivations or not. It makes it a bit more worthwhile to work out the difficult language for a student who is less familiar with early modern English when the payoff is laughter rather than tragedy.
  2. It’s fairly short and the language is a bit more accessible. There’s a lot less philosophizing and a lot more characters hatching schemes that we know won’t quite come about. I often tell students that they can become familiar with the language and the more of it they read/listen to, the more they will be able to make out on their own. As they are Honors students, I tell them of the Shakespeare plays we’ll be reading in AP Literature (should they choose to take it their senior year) and how the time they spend decoding now will ultimately help them down the road. The play also has slightly fewer scenes that contemporary audiences might find extraneous to the immediate plot—though the faux duel between Hugh and Caius comes close.
  3. It is one of very few Shakespeare plays where female characters take center stage. It’s not just a strong female character having to contend within her environment (such as a Lady Macbeth or a Portia) but the two wives actually command the environment. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, along with Mistress Quickly, are very much the orchestrators of the events and command their spaces with aplomb. In their toying with Falstaff, through exposing Master Ford’s jealousy, and in helping Anne Page get married to the suitor she prefers, the women come out not only victorious, but shining with wit, knowledge, power, and good grace. Mistress Page defiantly insists, “We’ll leave a proof, by that which we will do, wives may be merry, and yet honest too.”
  4. I firmly believe that a play must be seen on a stage to have its full effect and so I always show a film/stage adaptation of any play we read as a class. In this case, Shakespeare’s Globe has a spectacular production, filmed in the Globe theatre itself before a live audience that brings the text to life. It allows students to envision not only the scenes and characters, but also the original venue for which this play was written. Additionally, since I played Master Ford in college, I promise to show them a scene in which I unreasonably search for Falstaff–always a hoot. These adaptations serve not only as entertainment but to show that these plays are not old words on musty paper but that they can be brought back to life and that their themes hold relevance for us today.

It is not my goal that all students must love Shakespeare, but I do tell them at the start of the unit that each of them will be able to appreciate Shakespeare more than they did before. Across the board, students have indicated that by the end of the unit, this is true. Students write a final paper in which they can explore any theme of their choice from within the play, and in their writing I see their earnest engagement with a text over 400 years old and the applications they find. They explore the dangers of jealousy, of greed, of wantonness. They write of the empowerment of women, of the right to agency for everyone, and the qualities it takes to be an upstanding member of a community.

I’m glad I made the switch and so frequently recommend this play as a good entry point for those less familiar with the bard and for younger audiences.

The Simplicity of the Cat Life (and why Complexity is a Good Thing)

When I watch my cats napping in the sunshine, I occasionally wish for the peaceful simplicity of the feline life. Sleep, eat, chase a moth, then race around all bushy-tailed at 3am—what fun. But then I remember that their limited lives exclude many of the beautiful complexities and wonderful depths of mystery that make living a human life so worthwhile.

I want to know everything. From astrophysics to marine biology, through the intricacies of meteorology to the cutting edge of AI development–I want to be an expert. And I know that’s just not possible; there are not enough hours in a lifetime to understand the depths of every fascinating field of study. I’m left with knowing a little bit about lots of arenas and choosing a few areas of expertise.

Practically everything is both very simple and at the same time incredibly complex. I’ve got the routine for making my morning coffee down to muscle memory and my enjoyment at consuming that tasty beverage is genuinely uncomplex—good beans, french press, no milk or sugar. And yet cultivating coffee, drying and roasting the beans, blending the right mixture, and even the actual preparation must be done just right. And that’s not even looking at the interconnected elements of the exploitation of labor, the environmental impacts, and the transportational logistics that go into that one simple cup of coffee. Basic, yet also complicated.

Reading a good short story in a single sitting is very satisfying, but the hours of agony and pruning that went into writing it followed upon years of failed writing attempts. It takes me less than 10 minutes to eat that fresh char koay teow, but the uncle who made it has spent 40 years perfecting his craft; I can use the same ingredients he does and will never be able to get it to taste right. The joy of cultivating a healthy ecosystem that keeps my fish alive in their aquarium is not even remotely close to understanding the difficult dynamics at play in marine conservation.

The world is incredibly complicated in all of its facets, yet we can experience many of those areas through the expertise of others. Likewise, we can appreciate the gorgeous shades of blue and the billowing clouds of a beautiful view without knowing the atmospheric conditions that bring it about.

Photo Credit: Craig Roylance

But we live a lesser life when we assume that just because we do not see or comprehend the complexity of an issue that it must therefore be only as simple as we experience it.

I do not understand nor know how to appreciate abstract art. Part of me gets the scoffing at bananas taped to walls, urinals, and seemingly blank canvases. But I also know that it is not an area I have spent any time studying; I do not know the artists’ intentions, the traditions they are drawing on, nor the conversations they are taking part in. I expect an artist to have a much better understanding of what is happening there than I do. Likewise, I listen to music but play no instruments (and certainly don’t sing); if I don’t know how to appreciate a genre or musician, I should see that as a limitation in my knowledge of music, not in the craft of the artist. I can admire a good violin solo but will never appreciate it the way another violin player would.

I get this a lot when it comes to literature. I have exactly two areas of real expertise: Octavia Butler scholarship and how to teach high school English (American curriculum). Put me in a room with other experts in those fields and I will unabashedly hold my own because I’m confident in what I know because I’ve put in the hours and diligence. But I also know I still have more to learn. Snide comments about English teachers making up interpretations and that we can get anything to mean anything don’t bother me; they just highlight the ignorance of the person speaking. I think most understand the suppressed eye-roll when listening to someone talking about something that they don’t know anything about.

So please let us listen to experts and enter conversations with humility. A youtube video and one article do not constitute research. I’ve read many books on theology, audited theology courses, and regularly listen to theology podcasts—and I am in no way an expert. I’ve spent thousands of hours on my creative writing and have yet to complete a polished final draft of a novel—I am still an amateur. Just because I enjoy cooking and have a pretty decent repertoire up my sleeve does not make me a chef.

We do not need to be experts to gain pleasure and enjoyment from something. I plan to learn how to play the piano (probably poorly), and I want to learn how to paint clouds with watercolors, and I hope to keep bees and make my own mead someday. And I will never be an expert in any of those areas. And when an expert comes along and gives me advice, I sincerely wish to have the humility to listen graciously.

My cats don’t know what they’re missing out on. I can learn to enjoy a simple nap in the sunshine as much as they can. But they will never know the satisfaction of finishing a good book, the sublimity of watching a multi-colored sunset, the flavor of eating anything other than cat food and dead geckos. So let us learn both to appreciate the simplicities of life and to value its complexities. Because as humans, we can.

The Importance of Connotation

Words only hold meaning in context. Speak any word in a place where no one else understands that language and it holds no meaning. That is true for the denotation (a word’s literal or most common meaning) as well as for connotation (whatever else it signifies along with its denotation). English is such a rich language that the sheer mountain of synonyms can seem overwhelming—but it’s just this choice that allows for shades of meaning because while the denotations might be similar, the connotations can differ vastly.

As writers or speakers—or even during every day communication with a colleague, friend or debate partner—we are responsible for how we get across what we mean to say. Careful word choice can keep us from accidentally imparting unintended meaning. By knowing the context into which we are speaking or writing, we can adjust the connotation of our words so that they best convey what we mean to say.

I’ve written elsewhere on how this is true for swearing (On Swearing). Words come loaded with meaning and they can mean different things depending on who is listening. If I say ‘football’ in the US, the listeners imagine a very different sport from when I say ‘football’ anywhere else on the planet. When speaking to people from the US, I use ‘soccer’ because otherwise my meaning does not carry.

More than that, words carry historical meanings. Often, when reading a text from an earlier time period, the specific choice of words can be jarring as we must learn what they mean in context (not just the context of the sentence or the work, but the society into which it was written). Sometimes, a fringe meaning can become the primary denotation of a word over time; ‘gay’ once primarily mean happy and carefree though is now used primarily to describe sexual orientation. ‘Awful’ meant primarily ‘worthy of awe’, similar to ‘awesome’ but now means something closer to ‘unpleasant’ or ‘terrible’–and the root of ‘terrible’ and ‘terrific’ are both ‘terror’.

Words, in both their primary meanings and connotations change over time. And they change within their contexts. This is a good thing as it allows for the flexibility of language and gives us better ways to express what we need to. English teachers are sometimes cast as a fixed and unchangeable bunch who insist on the immutability of language. I’m sure those exist, but I know far more English teachers that understand and value the changing nature of the language.

In this way, language always has more than one layer, whether it is intended or not. Whether a person chooses their words carefully or not, their hearers and readers will understand the connotational layer. It is the speakers job to choose those words as carefully as possible to suit the context. However, when we read or listen to a work from another time period or culture, it is our job to match our understanding to the intended context. Any biblical scholar will emphasize that pinning doctrine onto a single word or phrase after it has been translated out of the original language or context can result in massive theological misunderstandings. No, it is in the original language, speaking into a specific context, that the words must be understood to retain their intended meaning.

For this reason, poetry is so hard to translate into other languages. Perhaps more than other writers, poets understand and intentionally use the connotations (and sounds) of language to engage in meaning-making. The differences between ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’ are subtle; the first is peaceful, the other far more unsettling. ‘Carefree’ is far more relaxed while ‘lackadaisical’ implies a careless laziness. ‘Interesting’ is far more likely to be used sarcastically than ‘intriguing’ while ‘unique’ is more positive than ‘different’.

It is through precise word choice that writers and speakers create layers of meaning. Even the seemingly simple and surface-level texts carry connotational meaning. So let us with precision choose our words with care. Simultaneously, let us hear with humility the words alongside the context into which they were spoken.

What Does Orange Juice Have To Do With Literature?

Seven or eight year old Jens woke up somewhat earlier than usual that morning. His parents and brother were still asleep so he trundled into the dining room and found his grandfather eating breakfast. Likely his second breakfast, considering it was after 7AM. Jens plunked himself at the oblong table and filled his bowl with plain Kellogg’s cornflakes and looked around for the milk. But there wasn’t any.

A closer inspection of grandpa’s bowl showed that the cornflakes were not floating in milk but in orange juice. Not to be outdone, Jens went to the fridge, found the orange juice and nonchalantly poured it in, as though that were a normal thing to do. His grandfather, never one to be particularly talkative, didn’t say much.

Jens took his first bite and was pleasantly surprised: the citrus tang of the orange juice brought life to the corn, while the crunch of the flakes was as satisfying as ever.

It was many years before Jens would think about this moment again; many years of eating cereal with milk.

***

One of the skills some of my AP Lit students struggle with the most not giving in to their first reactions, impressions, and judgments of a text. We all of us bring our own interpretive frameworks to a text, whether we are aware of that or not. The gut-level reaction to scenes of violence, the fierce grin when something fitting happens, the desire to throttle a character making a dumb choice. Beyond that, our worldview can also blind us to what an author is attempting to say, to another way of looking at an issue, and to other ways of living life.

Too many of us assume that the life we’ve had, the events we’ve experienced, the societies we’ve lived in are the normal standard by which to measure all others. And the more entrenched we become, the harder it is to see others as potentially equally valid. We can’t give a fair evaluation until we remove some of our own expectations.

I use the metaphor of lenses quite a bit in my classroom. Our worldview is a lens—and it can be a good lens. We need it to make sense of the world, to interpret what happens around us. We also have a hand in shaping that lens, when we are intentional about it. We can also temporarily add lenses to our view that allow for a particular focus on one aspect of a thing. And other times, we must remove our own, innermost lenses to actually experience something for what it is.

An example of this often shows up when reading somewhat older texts and a character ends up getting married to their first cousin. Students frequently cannot see beyond their initial revulsion at the idea, likely picturing their own cousins and themselves. But within the context of Victorian England and other parts of Europe at the time, it was not uncommon, especially among the upper class or middle class. Similarly, the age-gaps between the men and women getting married often receive fairly scathing comments from my students.

But by the time we’ve distanced ourselves a bit, talked about the reasons and causes, removed ourselves from our immediate context and instead situated our mindsets into a Victorian one, it seems less outlandish. That doesn’t mean we can’t still look critically at the marital expectations of the time, but we’re doing it honestly, rather than only from our own preconceptions sitting here in the 21st century.

A chapter of a book we read in AP Lit discusses the need for readers to not just read with their own eyes. This works similarly to how I use lenses. To be good readers, we must first attempt to remove our own lenses and view a text for what it is, before we bring in our interpretive skills. It is too easy, especially when a text was written in another time period, or is from another culture, to pass judgment without considering the unique context.

***

So a few weeks ago, I had my students try cornflakes with orange juice. This is the second time I’ve attempted this illustration and both times it went really well.

After discussing the need to distance ourselves from our preconceptions, I try to set the stage. I place cornflakes within the context that brought them into existence: an easy, store-able, filling breakfast that working-class people could eat in a hurry. The ready presence of various grains helped, and the crunchiness of corn when toasted made for a very versatile breakfast. We talk about dairy products, how the industrial revolution brought more and more milk cows into the cities (resulting in a need for pasteurization to keep the milk clean) and how we don’t actually need dairy to survive—in fact, there are numerous places in the world were a large majority of inhabitants are lactose intolerant. We drink milk because we like it, because it is used in awesome products like cheese and ice cream, but it’s not strictly nutritionally necessary.

I ask students why we put milk in cereal (named after Ceres, the Roman goddess of grains and agriculture). Couldn’t we use other fluids to soften that crunchiness up? Water? Cocoa? Juice? What difference does it make whether I use a fluid squeezed out of a citrus fruit as opposed to one squeezed out of a bovine udder?

By the time we actually get around to trying cornflakes with orange juice, there’s quite a hullaballoo in the classroom. A few are excited, some have very skeptical looks, while others can’t shake their repulsed expression. One or two remain silent, stoically approaching the ordeal ahead. I don’t require that anyone try it unless they want to, though most students do eventually give it a go.

Their reactions run a pretty wide gamut. Some try half a bite and can’t get over the fact that it’s not how they’re used to eating cereal. Some don’t like cereal or orange juice to begin with, so that usually doesn’t go very far. And most give it an honest attempt, set aside their lenses as best they can and try to appreciate the flavor and texture for what it is. Some don’t mind it, some prefer it another way, one or two really just dislike it, and a few absolutely love it.

But it’s not until they can set aside their expectations of what cereal is that they can give it an honest try and evaluate it on its merits, rather than on their preconceptions.

And cornflakes are fairly uncontroversial. Yet we struggle to give even that a fair trial. How much harder it is to fairly evaluate our deeply held beliefs in other areas of our lives. And yet, that is how we should read literature. That doesn’t mean we don’t bring in our worldview, our interpretive lenses at a later point, but that should only be after we have considered the text within its context and for what it is. Only then can we say we’ve given it an intellectually fair reading. We might still not like it, might still find it problematic, but we didn’t let our own preconceptions get the better of us. And occasionally, we discover a new favorite way to eat cornflakes.

What I’ve Learned from Teaching Online

We’re about to head into week 6 of this current stint of teaching online. Like many teachers the world over, I’ve had to figure out how best to adapt my teaching style, my curriculum, and my interactions with students to the virtual realm. And I’ll be honest, it’s not my favorite. There are a lot of downsides and not terribly many upsides. However, I have learned quite a number of things about myself, about teaching, about learning, and that is worth something.

1. It’s exhausting. Seems like a silly insight since that is the common theme of most people’s lives at the moment, but it is an important realization nonetheless. Even at the best of times, I have to be careful to balance my responsibilities so that my energy levels are sufficient. Particularly tasks that involve other people can be quite draining.

Teaching online is one of the most exhausting quests I’ve ever had to engage in. Finding the balance between putting forth my best effort, supporting my students, preparing for classes, and also keeping myself from collapsing under the strain has not been easy. And yet, I’ve learned that taking each moment, each class period, each day as it comes makes that much more manageable. I continually remind myself not to think or plan too far ahead (very hard for a planner like me) but instead to just focus on the next item on my list, on the next class, on the task before me at that moment. And sometimes, what’s next is a break, a snack, or a nap.

2. I’ve only taught something if students have learned it. I kept hearing that in my education classes in college and it’s come back with more immediate importance now. It doesn’t matter how engaging, or snappy, how brilliant my lesson is; if the students haven’t learned what I’m teaching, then I haven’t taught it. Many teachers are having to reinvent themselves, their methods of content/skill delivery, and how the students demonstrate their mastery. Just ‘covering material’ and then having students regurgitate through some sort of assessment is not teaching.

While not new, I’ve relearned the importance of making sure that my students have not only interacted with what we’re learning, but internalized it to enough of an extent that it fits into the larger matrix of the purpose of the class. In English, that means that they are still improving as writers, become more insightful and observant readers, and can articulate their thoughts an ideas clearly and with purpose. If they are growing in those areas, then I’m teaching. If not, then I’m not doing my job.

3. I’m very space-oriented. I’ve known this for a long time but its importance had fallen into the background. I’d taken my spaces for granted—in particular, my classroom. My teacher-brain works in my classroom, is ready to teach, to engage with students, to grade and to gain life and joy from doing those things. My teacher-persona turns up when I step into my classroom. My teacher-persona does not show up at home—but now he needs to. My intentional separation of work and home life has been not only a source of pride and comfort, but has allowed me to live a healthy, balanced life. I gain the rest I need at home so I can teach the next day.

And that’s not possible at the moment. Of our three teaching-online stints since last March, there have been times when we the teachers have been allowed to work at school. The sheer difference I experience in motivation, focus, energy levels, and purpose have been very telling. My classroom is my sanctuary and not being able to teach from there has robbed me and my students of something. I’ve intentionally set it up to be a place that is comfortable, soothing, peaceful. It is my desire that students want be there. It makes the loss of being stuck in a virtual zoom-box each day that much worse.

4. I miss my students. I don’t generally miss people—it’s not a feeling I experience much, perhaps because I’ve gotten so used to moving around and having people (even close friends and family) that I sometimes don’t see for years at a time. But now, I miss seeing my students. I became a teacher not to teach English, but to teach students and I feel as though in many cases, I only get a sliver of them through the screen. I miss their vibrant banter, the snarky comments from the back row, the excited barging in of one of last-year’s students, and the heated back-and-forth of two students respectfully disagreeing about a text. I’ve worked hard to incorporate class discussions in the online setting as that is one of the cornerstones of my classroom, but it’s just not the same. I’m incredibly proud of how well most of my students are attempting to replicate this at the moment, because of all people, I know how hard it is to do this through limiting vehicles like Zoom.

So when the Malaysian Ministry of Education gave us the go-ahead to hold live, in-person sessions of AP classes on campus once per week, I was overjoyed. I get to see 10 of my brightest students for 75 minutes, in my classroom, each Monday morning. And it’s life-giving. It provides me with motivation to read their essays and give feedback to them because I know I’ll be handing them back in-person. It makes our discussions, our interactions, our learning not only more personal but more spontaneous. There is more laughter, more opportunity for depth, and a greater appreciation of each other as people. And I carry that energy with me for the next few days into my other classes as well.

5. Teaching online isn’t for everyone. And certainly not for me. I’ve taken brilliant online classes that were designed that way and are very productive, meaningful, effective, and a joy to engage in. Online learning is important and as a teacher that finished his Masters degree entirely online, I’m incredibly grateful that such opportunities are available.

But I became a high school teacher because I like teaching high schoolers. I like interacting with them, joking with them, listening to their stories, and helping them become the people they are growing into. All the little bits of teaching, the non-academic parts, the impromptu conversations, the silly question after the class, the personal growth stories—those aren’t really happening. Many of my students are suffering and I can’t help them. I’m sure we’ll see many differences to how education is done over the next decades. Some are predicting the rise of online schooling as a norm, rather than an exception. But I rather think that a deeper appreciation for in-person schooling will help us get better at it. Some things, we just can’t do online and I sort of suspect that many teachers, many students, and especially parents will have a renewed regard for ‘old-fashioned’ classroom teaching.

I look forward to a future when I get to see my students every day. I long for a time when they can come and go through my classroom doors. I look forward to the day when I can once again ‘read’ a classroom full of students and know what they’re thinking, and whether something was clear or not, and how best to help an individual. I hope for the day when the group enthusiasm for a topic starts pulling in that one student, who didn’t think they cared, because of the energy in the room. And not that those things don’t or can’t happen online, but it’s just not as frequent, as deep, or as rich. We’re all virtual ghosts of ourselves, and I very much look forward to our resurrections into a new, perhaps different, but hopefully recognizable future.