Navigating the Contested Curriculum

First time here. Fifty miles an hour. Hundreds of other cars. No GPS. How’s your confidence level?
(Image by Annie Theby, via Unsplash)

About ten years ago, the writer Louis Menand wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Live and Learn,” the subtitle of which revealed its true topic: “Why we have college.” In it, he differentiated between two and a half substantially different reasons why college should exist in the first place, and why the fact that we don’t talk about those motives makes it almost impossible to do any of them well.

Mission A is “expos[ing] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” It is an exercise in enculturation, in curiosity, in social norming. In this view, college education “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste…. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.” This is the function praised by the “great-ideas” people and decried by the “indoctrination” accusers, both of whom are kind of right, as we all are.

Mission B is sorting and ranking, of knowing who’s better than whom. In this view, “College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.” This model is laudable in its clarity, though it furthers the gender and race and class divisions that students arrived with in the first place. If you were born on the goal line, you’re automatically closer to a touchdown than someone born outside the stadium entirely.

And then Mission C, which Menand touches on only peripherally and only because his own students drag his attention toward it, is that college is intended to be technical training for a particular kind of job. Under this view, “…advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.”

There are clusters of colleges aimed closely at each of these three motives, and yet other colleges that try to be a little bit of all things to all students. But if we never actually say these things out loud, we’ll never actually know what kind of college we’re providing, because we won’t know why we’re doing it.

About that same time, the school I was working at was going through one of its innumerable disciplinary accreditation processes, the work of the home office making sure that all of its franchisees provide more or less the same product. In this particular instance, we were trying to ensure that we could talk about how the current curriculum met all of the expectations of the professional community for what a bachelor’s-degree-holder should know. That accreditor worked every year or two to administer a questionnaire asking professionals what students should know at the moment of graduation, what they should learn as young pre-licensure professionals, and what they probably wouldn’t know until they’d been in the profession for a few years. At no one’s surprise, the results were that all graduating students should know almost all of it, except for the business strategy parts—the grown-ups would take care of that, leaving their army of highly trained drafting monkeys at work in the back office.

Every profession is increasingly complex, in software and in policy and in diversity of available materials and tools. If we expect 21-year-olds to be competent young employees the day they graduate with their BA or BS, we’re just going to have to stuff more knowledge and technique into that undergraduate experience. But state and federal departments of education appropriately want to make sure that they aren’t paying for increasing seat time beyond the standard of 120 credits in four years, and that students aren’t incurring even more loan burden to get a degree that now takes five years, or six years, or eight. So the curriculum becomes a zero-sum game, in which innumerable forces each work to claim some share of the 120-credit landscape. As former college president Jill Ker Conway once wrote, the curriculum is the battlefield upon which intellectual wars are fought.

Now imagine again, as we did a couple of days ago, that you’re sixteen years old, a junior in high school, trying to figure out this opaque landscape even as you’re hurtling toward it. Everybody’s haranguing you about how important college is, but they haven’t done any meaningful thinking about why, or about how it might be appropriate for YOU and for your individual life trajectory. Nobody around you has experience with lots of different types of colleges, so you’re left to rely on shouted brand names (Ford! Chevy! Berkeley! Stanford!) or affordability and convenience.

Nobody tells you about the bitter fights that have gone on over that 120-credit landscape you hope to inhabit. Every inch of it was a contested decision, but now it’s presented to its potential consumers as logical to the point of inevitability. What does your get-ed consist of? Why are you doing it? How has the discipline divided your courses into methods and knowledge and underlying principles and theories of its future? You can’t take any of these programs for a meaningful test drive, it’s like buying a car from the brochure. Just shut up and get in, okay?

I’m serious. Put yourselves into that imaginary sixteen-year-old’s head, worried about issues of boyfriends or girlfriends, worried about issues of identity, engaged in a high school that’s doing whatever the state wants, worried about whether Dad’s going to be laid off or Mom’s going to be transferred to Dayton. And then imagine this flurry of garbled, unreliable information, a collegiate blizzard of half-truths pouring down upon you from which you’re expected to snatch exactly the right snowflake.

We have GOT to do better.

Voyages to the Unknown

Not sure where we’re going, but we’ll get there.
(Image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, via Unsplash)

Yesterday, we talked about the mismatch between what academic majors and disciplines are, and students’ folk knowledge of what majors and disciplines are. And it is true that we all embark upon future paths that seem appealing but which are, in detail, entirely unknown. That’s what everyday life is, a series of predictions about how today builds tomorrow. And as the physicist Neils Bohr once said, “It is very difficult to predict, especially about the future.”

How might we do better at it? How might we lead eighteen-year-olds, from a vast diversity of backgrounds and privilege, from a vast diversity of cultures and family structures, to have a reasonable chance of using college to become?

I can tell you how I wouldn’t do it.

I wouldn’t do it in “intro” courses with 25 students, or 50, or 300.

I wouldn’t offer my most vulnerable and least affiliated teachers to my most vulnerable and not-yet-convinced students.

I wouldn’t frame the concept of self-discovery in terms like “general education,” which everybody instantly and demeaningly crushes down to “gen-ed,” knowing how little it matters. Or “breadth education,” the finishing-school notion that prepares us for a diverse array of pleasant conversations at the country club. Or “the great books,” the reading list that privileges one form of rigor above all others, and one cultural heritage above all others as well, declaring firmly that some things (and some people) exist on the serious and enduring side of the fence and all else is inadequate and temporal.

So, if I wouldn’t do it the way that almost every college in America does it, what other options might be available? Well, you’d have to peel away a lot of constraints.

About thirty years ago, The Big Picture Company embarked on the development of a new high school in Providence, Rhode Island, called The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, universally known as “The Met.” They developed a curricular model of three parts: close relationships with a single advisor (in groups of twelve students), meaningful internships in the local professional community, and a self-designed project from each student each semester. Here’s the bet they made: Give us some money, and get out of our way. If you do, we promise that our graduation rate will be way, way higher than the Providence city schools, and that 100% of our graduates will be accepted to a four-year college. If we can do that, you keep quiet. If we can’t, we close, because we don’t deserve to be open.

There’s some chips on the table. As they say in poker, “all in.”

There are no courses or curriculum or exams or teachers or credits. There are, instead, students and their advisors and their internship supervisors and their parents, who come together occasionally to look at what each student has done and to think carefully about what each student might do next. As one of my colleagues once described it, “You’ll love it. Every question you’d normally ask about school doesn’t apply to them.” For instance, a question like “what time is the 10th grade math class?” relies on four unspoken assumptions: grade levels, disciplines, classrooms, and course schedules. None of those existed at The Met.

Conceiving of a school like The Met requires a lot of things. It requires bravery, for sure, but more importantly, it requires us to think seriously about what’s at the core of the endeavor, and what’s just the surrounding mechanism. And it’s no surprise that a core value of the Big Picture Company is, and has always been, “one kid at a time.”

Turning our attention to college, and to the specific task of helping young people know themselves and their desires, it’s tempting to make recommendations. “During the first two years…” or “Class sizes should be limited to…” The hard work is to not go there yet, to sit with the dilemma and think for a long time about what we hope will be true rather than being all businesslike and efficient and figuring out a fix. If we can come to some core principles, I trust that my colleagues can create innumerable interesting and effective mechanisms to get there.

So here’s some core principles I’d propose for the endeavor.

  • We have no control over what came before, and we can’t whine about it. We can’t blame students’ difficulties on bad schools or tough neighborhoods or language learning or insufficient families. I mean, if you’re going to say that you only know how to serve wealthy students from important families from elite high schools, then just accept your limitations, call yourself Princeton and be done with it. This kind of program has to meet every single young person exactly where they’re at. In fact…
  • The diversity of students’ backgrounds is a core feature, through which each student will learn something about the enormous breadth of the world. This implies, of course, that we ask students to engage seriously with one another, and that we provide the tools of mediation and interpersonal relations that allow difference to be opportunity rather than threat. If we imagine that our students are libertarian free agents whose success is through at best ignoring others and at worst competing with others, then we will produce people who, in the words of David Foster Wallace, are “the lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We are, always, mutually and collectively responsible for our wellbeing.
  • Growth cannot be fully predicted or tightly scheduled. Through our whole lives, all of our learning is a series of spurts and plateaus and setbacks and streams that don’t pan out. There should be regular moments where we check in and evaluate, but there will be no such common schedules or sequences of “achievement” or “attainment.” One of the most common principles of martial arts, for instance, is that students do not ask to move up to the next belt level, nor do those promotions come at set durations in the program. Promotion comes at the judgment of the sensei. But this is like any workplace, in which we get promotions not because of simple seniority but because our skills match some next task. The core questions are always “what have we done?” and “what might we do?”
  • The program’s work is enthusiasm, opportunity, and challenge. Enthusiasm for good ideas and interesting questions. Opportunity through recommending interesting next paths, opening doors that might not have been seen, finding colleagues who know more about something than we do. And challenge through continual expectation that the next thing we take on is just a little bit harder than we think we’re ready for.

If this doesn’t fit with the practices of our registrar’s office or our financial aid systems, doesn’t fit with our business model or our tenure and promotion guidelines, then we’re left to ask which are the means and which are the ends.

One more pass through this tomorrow.


Architecture 101, my home.
(Google Streetscapes screenshot)

It is not unusual for students to come to the university with conceptualizations of disciplines that are out of sync with academic reality… a lot of entering freshmen assume that sociology is something akin to social work, an applied study of social problems rather than an attempt to abstract a theory about social interaction and organization. Likewise, some think psychology will be a discussion of human motivation and counseling, what it is that makes people do what they do—and some coverage of ways to change what they do. It comes as a surprise that their textbook has only one chapter on personality and psychotherapy—and a half dozen pages on Freud. The rest is animal studies, computer models of thought, lots of neurophysiology. If they like to read novels, and they elect a literature course, they’ll expect to talk about characters and motive and plot, but instead they’re asked to situate the novel amid the historical forces that shaped it, to examine rhetorical and stylistic devices and search the prose for things that mean more than they seem to mean. Political science should mean politics and government and current events—nuclear treaties, trade sanctions, the Iran-Contra scandal—but instead it’s Marx and Weber and political economy and organizational and decision-making models. And so goes the litany of misdirection. This dissonance between the academy’s and the students’ definitions of disciplines makes it hard for students to get their bearings with material: to know what’s important, to see how the pieces fit together, to follow an argument, to have a sense of what can be passed over lightly.

Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 1989 (191-92)

When I was in high school, I was a bland and mediocre student who’d risen to near the top of my class because I read a lot and I was polite and obedient. But that was enough to be considered college material. No one in my family had any experience with college, and I’ve written elsewhere about having absolutely no tools with which to choose the colleges I applied to, nor to then choose from among the three that were foolish enough to accept me.

But a second dilemma that I’m considering today (because of reading Mike Rose yesterday) was the question of what I might major in. And really, who among us at the age of sixteen had any sense at all of the adult paths available to us, aside from simple labels like lawyer or salesman or mechanic? We knew what our parents did, and I knew that I was unlikely to be either a factory worker or a telephone operator. We knew what our teachers did, and there’s no kid in their right mind who’d choose a job THAT stupid. So really, how do any of us decide on what turns out to be a mighty and momentous declaration?

And that’s what it is, a declaration. We “declare” a major, which is to say that we pledge some form of allegiance to a way of thinking and to a body of concerns and to a possible adult way of engaging with the world. It has close secular relations to religious practices of confirmation and bar/bat mitzvah, some half-awake seventh-grader making a public declaration of faith because the calendar said it was time. I mean, they won’t let us drive a car until we’re sixteen, won’t let us vote or enter into contracts until we’re eighteen, and won’t let us drink until we’re twenty-one, but at age thirteen we can stand in front of our parents’ friends and declare our perpetual allegiance to some faith and community? Please…

The problem on the table today is similar. What body of life experiences would it take to make a meaningful declaration of our adherence to sociology, or to engineering, or to history, or to any of the dozens of other life paths available at even the most meager regional college?

I can tell you that I was not the right model to follow. I had decided, when I was in eleventh grade, that I wanted to go to school for architecture. What body of evidence did I marshal on behalf of that choice, having grown up in a town where the smokestacks were far taller than any building or steeple, where factories were the most sophisticated building type on the landscape? What experience did I bring to that decision, having grown up on a block of shop-floor workers and telephone linemen and branch-bank managers and septic-tank excavators?

A) I lived on a block of identical houses, all the same floor plan, oversized Monopoly houses one per lot along the 3300 block of Lemuel Street. But I came to see that individual families had modified those houses in the twenty years since their construction after World War II, from trivial choices like paint and plants to significant decisions of reorganization and addition. And I vaguely understood that family and house decisions were related, not merely logistically but through values and aspirations and life histories.

B) In eleventh grade, I took a high-school course in mechanical drafting. And I was completely captivated. I loved the use of the t-square and the triangles and the circle templates. I loved the geometry of the projections that allowed accurate translation of top view into front view into side view, the faint guidelines that we used to align our vision across perspectives. I loved the idea of rotation, of seeing a couple of faces of a machine part and understanding how the other four faces would be represented, what would be seen if we turned it this way or that. I loved the simple feel of the tools: aligning and taping down the paper, sharpening leads just so, using line weights to represent meaning and legibility. I loved that we had a title block for each drawing sheet, bearing name and assignment title and date, a junior analog to the maker’s marks of master craftsmen worldwide. I was doing four or five assignments in the time others took to do one, carrying my completed paper up to Mr. Salisz for his review like a dog with a stick, waiting for him to please dear god throw me another one so I could chase it down again.

C) The factories themselves were important. Or, more accurately, the ghosts that inhabited factories left behind. Four stories tall and four blocks long and a block wide and all the windows shot out and weeds grown up through the parking lots where thousands of men parked for each of the three shifts of the day. They were somber and grave, industrial mausoleums marking the unspoken contributions and the lost aspirations of three generations of workers.

So what I knew at the end of high school was some inarticulate blend of A+B+C. And friends, I am here to tell you today that A+B+C ≠ architecture. At least, not in alignment with the academic discipline of architecture. As architecture professor William Hubbard explained in his 1996 book A Theory for Practice: Architecture in Three Discourses, those inside the profession and discipline carry interests in the work that are unlike those of other viewers. He differentiates between buildings as statements of values about good living, buildings as instruments toward some array of outcomes, and buildings as experiments in order and composition. All three of those were represented among the faculty in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, and those communities hated one another. The tribalism of the studio faculty, the history and theory faculty, and the building technology faculty erupted often into open mockery, in full view of their students. The motives of one classroom were not allowed in the classrooms of the others, were declared not merely ineffective but heretical. (Nowadays we’d have to contend with a fourth tribe of design computing as well.)

Who among us, at sixteen, knows that? What high school kid knows what a doctor does all day, much less that there are hundreds of different ways of being a doctor? What high school kid is prepared, in any meaningful way, to declare that they want to be an architect or a nurse or an assistant regional marketing director for Kroger?

More tomorrow.

The Fuel that Runs It

Who will help?
(Image by Lukas Rychvalsky, via Unsplash)

My writing group was talking about the inherent difficulty of the first chapter of a novel. You can’t put everything first, so you have to help people be reassured that the things they don’t know yet will ultimately be revealed. And Nathan said something interesting, something that feels true: “The first chapter of a book teaches you how to read the book.”

Our neighbors lent me a copy of a book, Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I read it on New Year’s Eve afternoon, picking up speed the whole way through. Indeed, the first thirty pages or so of that book taught me how to read the book. It’s a book about stupid, belligerent people. It’s a book about being the victim of stupid, belligerent people. It’s about a young boy who learns over the next decades to repeat every single one of his stupid, belligerent father’s failings. The first thirty pages set that tone perfectly, so that all I had to do thereafter was skip twenty pages forward, read half a page to determine that indeed everyone was still stupid and belligerent, skip forward another twenty, confirm once again, and so on to the end. The first thirty or forty pages took an hour; the subsequent 450 about the same.

I got two emails yesterday, from two different friends who don’t know one another at all. One of them had just finished reading my book Leopard, and called it a “wonderful, loving story.” The other had read a recent pair of blog posts, and said “Thank you for all that you give to us with such generosity!”

Nora and I were talking yesterday morning about a piece of music I shared with her, a duet by the guitarist Ross Traut and bassist Steve Rodby. Rodby’s been the bass player with Pat Metheny for decades, and has a substantial career as a music producer and sideman, but I knew almost nothing about Ross Traut. I mean, the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and he’s a hell of a player. So I googled “Ross Traut guitar,” and found that he has a gallery of Navajo arts in New York City. His homepage says I’ve been playing guitar since the beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in ’64, starting with air guitar and moving on from there. I’ve had a good run as a professional guitar player for the last 40 years and there is nothing that beats playing. However, looking at Navajo rugs is like listening to music. I imagine the creation of a Navajo weaving like a jazz improvisation only a lot slower. 

Anyway, we looked at Google Streetscapes to see the building he’s in, one of those Manhattan midrises filled with unknowable lives. And Nora said, “I wish you’d go back to that book you were working on about all the tenants of the office building. I know it didn’t exactly float your boat, but it’s such an interesting idea.” (Of course, we’re both academically trained in a field that collects and displays stories about people in their places.)

So after dinner last night, I went back and read the 93 pages that exist of the novel The Story Box. And that opener, which has done the work of teaching us how to read the book, showed itself to me in a completely new light. Cassie, the lead character, is an interesting person with an interesting array of problems. I can easily imagine spending time trying to figure out more about her. The other characters in the other office suites are compelling, all of them coming to terms with some major thing in their lives. And the idea of seeing the stories inside all of these cubes of leased space remains interesting.

What’s missing is the fuel of generosity. What’s missing is a character who’s vulnerable enough to admit what they need, and a character who hears that need and does her or his best to address it. In fact, the commercial worlds portrayed in the story have systematically trimmed away everyone’s opportunities for generosity, have pruned each of the four main characters back to their root. Maybe they’ll be able to flower again some day, but I’m not seeing it.

And that realization became two realizations. One is that generosity is indeed the fuel that has powered all of my stories, that we become greater through our work on behalf of others. But the other is that in almost every case, that generosity had to be exercised through something other than the character’s workplace. They all have jobs, of course, some of them pretty interesting jobs. But mostly, those jobs had to be overcome in order to do the real work of loving their friends.

How many of us are fortunate enough to be able to exercise generosity through our work? The notion of profit is not a generous notion. The forces of standardization and compliance are not generous forces. The drive to self-interest is not a generous drive. If we are generous people, that generosity may seep through gaps in the foundation, but the foundation itself is designed to be anti-generous, to be rapacious or defensive, each for ourselves against all others.

And in fact, as I was writing that last paragraph, a message came in, forwarded from a friend:

So, as we begin a new year, I’ll invite you to do a little meditation on the notion of generosity. What would it mean to truly see others, to be invested in their well-being, to help them to thrive? What opportunities do each of us have to do those things? And what stands in our way?


Me, or not me?
(Image by Elijah Sargent, via Unsplash)

So yesterday, we talked a little about the phenomenon of languishing, and also about whether fiction can ever be anything other than essays in drag, moral lessons camouflaged by fake names and invented circumstances.

Let’s come at that a little sideways today, by talking about the idea of alienation. Alienation is the phenomenon of feeling separated from that which ought to feel native or inherent. Marx wrote a lot about alienation as the natural fate of the industrial worker: separated from the entirety of the made thing, not being able to identify one’s own contribution to the complex whole, not actually owning the materials or the processes or the machines or the final objects but simply being adjacent to them as they went along their own independent paths. Marx’s predecessor Georg Hegel wrote about the idea of being “at home” (zu Hause) as increasingly being an unavailable state for us moderns. If we can live anywhere, then we have no true home. If we can do infinite kinds of work, then we have no true livelihood. If we can make ourselves better (or worse) people, then even the notion of “human nature” is invalidated, becomes a proposition of alternatives rather than a known and singular state.

It’s no surprise that, in the face of this uncomfortable fluidity, people sometimes become desperate to limit their alternatives and name one as true. Whenever we claim an identity, we’re in part staking boundaries around what is permissible and what is not. Boundaries around what is even thinkable, and what is not. To be “a Vermonter,” for instance, is not the same thing as someone who exists in Vermont. It is a claim of some immeasurable but firmly-fixed truth. We often look to God or heritage or legacy or party or genetics or something to name us as firmly X rather than any other letter, and then take reassurance in our X-ness.

That surety is a comfort unavailable to good writers. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once wrote that every good anthropologist he’d ever known had felt himself or herself to be a misfit when they were growing up. And I think that must be true. It’s that sense of misfit that allows us to look directly at the unspoken rules that we never quite figured out. If someone imagines that everyone lives (or ought to) like they do and thinks (or ought to) the way they think, then that person has no idea that the ways they live and think could ever be studied and questioned and expanded. They just are. And in that unexamined comfort, people can be zu Hause.

The fiction writer can never be at home. Fiction is dedicated to the proposition that everything could have been otherwise. A bad “plot twist” is an occurrence that’s inserted to jump-start a failing story. But a real plot development is just the recognition that today might be the day that the ladder falls, or the day that we realize our job can’t be salvaged, or the day that girl finally admits how she feels about us. Any day can be that day, and honest fiction requires that our characters become at least fractionally different in the face of that new world.

The fiction writer must always carry ambiguities in evaluation. A good job has aches within it, just as a bad job has its satisfactions. A good marriage, a good place, a good person are all sometimes bad for exactly the same reasons they’re good. There are days when we are gratified and days when we are stultified, even though the external phenomena that “cause” us to feel certain ways may not have changed.

It would be nice to believe that we understood the world, to inhabit the lower ranges of the Dunning-Kruger spectrum in which we’ve asked so few questions that we don’t imagine questions are even possible any more, just assertions. It would be nice to imagine that either Santa or St. Peter has anyone firmly listed on the naughty or nice column. But the more we know… the more we pay attention and wonder how and why… the less stable we can ever be in naming any person as fully knowable, in naming any phenomenon as fully understood.

It’s curiosity that keeps us from entering into essayistic fiction, from making our characters into marionettes dancing at the ends of our strings. But it’s that same sense of never-at-home-ness that makes the writer’s life emotionally fraught. We are strange creatures, bred to live in the atmosphere of alienation, like deep-sea fish who endure enormous pressures and extraordinary cold. And because it’s so uncomfortable, we’d like to flee sometimes, head up to the beach and get some sun. But once we’re there, we look around, wonder why, and with a sigh, submerge once again.


A little beyond tenth grade, but the same principles and methods apply

So I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, afflicted with what the New York Times has accurately called languishing. Just a general sense of ehh… Part of that comes from having been finished with one project but not yet having another. Part comes from my most current batch of books, which should have been here three weeks ago, having finally been shipped on the 24th… but with UPS being overwhelmed by the holidays, their tracking website doesn’t think the boxes have even left the printing plant yet. And part comes from what I was writing about before my hiatus: will what I’ve written be troubling or offensive or difficult for my friends and neighbors and family to hear? I told Nora a couple of days ago that I feel like a child operating heavy machinery; I could really hurt someone without intending to.

Anyway, Nora read that six-part miniseries I wrote in early December on fiction ethics, and said that she’s really missed that part of my writing, the essayist with his head cocked sideways like a dog, trying to work something out.

She and I are both lapsed academics. We grew up with essays at every other spot in our genetic code, essays are as much a part of us as our hair color or our height. We both love to be enlightened by someone who’s thought through something we’d half considered, or by someone who’s connected something we understand to a whole other ecology we hadn’t seen as related. Connecting the dots reveals a pattern, but deciding which dots to connect is the work of creativity.

Because we are who we are, both of us are both drawn more toward inductive rather than deductive essays. A deductive essay stems from the impulse to say “I know something true; let me demonstrate it to you.” An inductive essay stems from the impulse to say “This phenomenon is confusing; let me see if we can figure it out.” We’re both drawn more toward people who are uncertain, who don’t think they have some master key to the universe’s meaning.

But regardless of whether the originating motive is deductive or inductive, essays (like this one) all have the same goal: improved understanding. The question is whether I’m trying to dispel YOUR misunderstanding, by delivering some truth, or whether I’m trying to dispel MY misunderstanding, by working my way aloud through a problem. Either type of essay is, by its nature, a form aimed at QED, the abbreviation of the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, or “which was to be shown.” The essay accommodates the word therefore in a way that fiction never can. We get somewhere other than where we started, somewhere secure enough to rest for a while.

Fiction, of course, gets us somewhere other than where we started too, but the journey is less stepwise and the destination less stable. In an essay, each tenuous move is cemented into place before we step out onto the next one; in fiction, every move remains tenuous for a long time, the whole rickety thing crying out for some kind of triangulation that’ll make it stiff enough to be trustworthy. Kind of like our own lives. So the fiction writer is working toward some sense of truth as well, but the nature of truth is different than it is in the essay form; less secure, more provisional. The paragraphs don’t snap together like Legos, they sort of mound up like a pile of gravel, the heap ultimately finding its own angle of repose.

A friend in my writing group was talking about Ayn Rand, an essayist who pretended to be a novelist. Her “characters” were never really characters at all, just roles to demonstrate her deductive statements about the ultimate truth of Objectivism. This isn’t surprising—her statements about the nature and function of art made that inevitable. The appropriate role of art, she believed, was to make concepts into percepts: to convert ideas into sensory information that could have emotional weight and thus more points of attachment. Art is a persuasive tool, an essay in drag, coming to a secure QED closure.

And who knows, maybe I do that, too. I believe that kindness is possible. I believe that the ends we set for ourselves can often be blocked, but that desirable alternatives can be fashioned. And my stories follow those beliefs. So maybe I’m just a deductive propagandist, too, not a novelist at all but just another hack inventing percepts that camouflage my concepts. The novel as stalking horse.

More tomorrow.

A Politics of Kindness (Fiction Ethics #6)

It’s pretty, but there’s a lot going on there
(Image by Henrique Ferreira, via Unsplash)

Yeah, I know I said I was done. So sue me. Think of it as an encore.

We went to our friends’ house last night for dinner, and to watch a webcast of the political historian Heather Cox Richardson interviewing the writer Rebecca Solnit about her new book Orwell’s Roses. In it, she contrasts Orwell’s clearly political writing with his love of flower gardening, and demonstrates how 1984 in particular was filled with the idea of the private power of pleasure—the ways in which totalitarianism tries fundamentally to control our language and thought, and the importance of reclaiming our own time and our own privacy and our own joys.

That evening followed on a message yesterday afternoon from Unitarian minister and political activist John Pavlovitz, describing what he called “cruelty sickness.”

“I sense a corporate emotional weariness in kind people these days, the accumulated scar tissue created when you’ve absorbed more bad news, predatory behavior, and  attacks on decency than your reserves can manage. Sustained cruelty will do that to the human soul… Eventually, we succumb to the numerous wounds of their boundless hatred, the suffering of those they victimize, and a steady stream of the unanswerable questions about how and why human beings can be this perpetually cruel.”

Pavlovitz’ solution is community. The ability to carry our injured until they’re well enough to re-enter the work, to offer sustenance and support to those who’ve been beaten. “We surround ourselves with people who value us not only for the work we do and the causes we support, but for the inherently vulnerable beings with finite resources that we are; those who demand that we rest and encourage us to play and give us space to pause—so that we are not consumed by the brutality of the day.”

The professional polymath Yi-Fu Tuan wrote a slim book in the late 1990s called Escapism, in which he counters the critics of “escapist” entertainments by arguing that almost all of human culture—the collective products of imagination—has been escapism in one form or another, has been intended to lift us at least for a minute above the brute facts of survival. His argument was launched by attending an academic conference that had been held at Disneyland, and finding himself surprised that he enjoyed it so much, having been trained by elite culture that such amusements are “escapist fantasies suitable only for the immature.” He follows on from that:

Suppose I move down the ladder. What comes after theme park? Shopping mall? It has been attacked as an escapist Eden for mindless consumers. Suburb? Academic detractors have not hesitated to dismiss it as a dull, middle-class playground. They prefer the city. But the city is escapist par excellence, for a city is a city—a real city!—to the degree that it has distanced itself (escaped) from nature and its rhythms. Is farm life, being so close to nature, the ultimately real? Urban sophisticates in a nostalgic mood seem to think so. Yet farmers have obviously striven to create their own world, and in any proud farmhouse, pictures hang on the wall, artificial light drives out darkness. Hunter-gatherers? They have barely modified their natural environment. They don’t have the tools. But they do have the tool of language, and with it they, like all humans, have woven an alternative or complementary reality to which they can resort for support in times of stress and in which they can take delight.

In 1912, the textile workers of Lawrence Massachusetts went on a strike that has come to be known as the “Bread and Roses” movement: the idea that dignity is as important as sustenance, that a life merely of bread is not as human as a life that encompasses both bread and roses, a life that climbs up Maslow’s hierarchy from safety to belonging to the continual growth of imagination.

That, in the end, is what I’m trying to do with my little stories of hope. Things will be hard, and they will get harder, but in the end, my characters find within themselves the power to be brave, to be kind, to be greater than they had been. And my hope is that through them, readers themselves may find moments of delight and strength that allow them to imagine that they, too, might be brave and kind and greater than they had been.

Service Industry (Fiction Ethics #5)

See anything you’d like? (Image by Roman Kraft via Unsplash)

This is the fifth and final of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

About twenty years ago, I was listening to an NPR piece about the spillover effects of the Hollywood writer’s strike. Shows and films weren’t in production, which meant that lumberyards weren’t selling building materials and hotels weren’t booking rooms and airlines weren’t booking flights. The upscale restaurant industry was hit particularly hard, because nobody was making production deals or pitching new projects. One of the restaurant owners they interviewed, fantastically successful for fourteen years to that point, talked about how tenuous the success of a restaurant can be, how every night is its own event with its own possibilities for pleasure, or for falling short.

And he let us in on his ritual. Every night when he was the last person out of the building, he would lock up, then turn back and pat the door. “Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow,” he’d say.

The Australian economist Colin Clark developed a theory of economic development that divided economic activities into four sectors:

  • Primary—pulling raw materials from the earth. Farming, mining, timbering, fishing, and such.
  • Secondary—manufacturing objects from those materials.
  • Tertiary—”the service economy,” providing goods and experiences and services to others.
  • Quaternary—finance and governance, organizing investment and policy for millions of people at a stroke.

So where would one place the writer in this structure of labor?

Certainly we’ve been engaged our entire lives in primary work. We conduct ethnosynthesis, the conversion of observation into story. We’ve spent decades watching people, listening to conversations, wondering about relationships or social movements around us. We go into the archives, looking at old newspapers and new websites to gather more evidence. Every day of our lives has been a mining expedition, the raw materials of the world collected and storehoused within us.

Lots of writers imagine themselves to be in the secondary or manufacturing trade. They select materials from the warehouse and assemble them into new forms. This is the world that focuses on craft, on the cycle of learning—from apprentice to journeyman to master—that allows us to make solid and capable work. Artists’ education of all forms lives here, from MFA programs to culinary schools, training us to make reliable pastry dough.

The publishing world writ large occupies the uppermost or quaternary economy. These are the tastemakers and investors, the agents and editors and publishers and grants agencies who make decisions on hundreds of thousands of stories a year, and through the collective weight of their decisions, steer the ship of literary culture a few degrees to port or starboard.

But it’s that third level, the work of hospitality and service, where I think that my work as a writer is best situated. Certainly I’ve done the primary work of being an eavesdropper—in the high school where I did my dissertation, the kids included my photo in the school yearbook, with the job title “spy.” And I work daily at the craft, at the level of manufacturing sentences from words and at the level of manufacturing relationships from sentences. But I think that the real goal of the work, as it is for any pastry chef, is the provision of pleasure and satisfaction for those who choose my table. And one of the fundamental practices of hospitality is to give people what they expect, but better than they expect. To offer moments of grace within the setting of generosity.

And paradoxically, I can’t do that by imagining who my readers are, just as restaurants don’t really imagine who their customers are. (Some restaurants do, of course. Olive Garden, Jack in the Box, Denny’s. The work of market research is a quaternary enterprise, beyond the interests of the craftsperson or host.) The philosopher Rush Rhees claims that “the artist does not work to satisfy an existing audience, but to create an audience through his work.” And that’s what restaurants and galleries and musicians and writers all do—we make the things that we believe in, and then we make them available to those who would choose them. The universally appealing restaurant does not, and cannot, exist. A good restaurant is a series of unpredictable relationships between the menu’s offerings and some community’s desires, and our widely varied subcultures result in a widely varied culinary landscape.

Any good restaurant, regardless of where it lies on the upscale or down-home continuum, regardless of who chooses it, is a full expression of the personalities and the obsessions of its owners. From food choices and decor and location and service patterns, a unitary experience arises. All of that is what writers call voice, the things that the writer cannot help but do, from themes to punctuation. The things that make us “us.”

And our friends are the people who find those choices engaging. Those are the people who return to our table, who recommend us to their friends and who make new friends with those around them.

Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow.

Vocation (Fiction Ethics #4)

Unnecessary grace. Thank you.
(Image by Claudio Schwarz, via Unsplash)

This is the fourth of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

E. F. Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful,” 1973

Ernst Schumacher was an economist whose primary career was in British efforts to rebuild the continent’s economy after World War II. But he did other economic development consulting, including a trip to Burma (now Myanmar) to help them make the transition to independence after sixty years of English colonial rule. While there, he was struck by the implications of Buddhist practice, and thought that rather than imposing Western development upon them, perhaps he could help them develop a locally relevant economics that didn’t assume a standard path of industrial labor.

He became converted to the idea of a humanistic economics, one that placed workers and their communities rather than products at the center of organizational principles. The book that came from this was Small is Beautiful, published in 1973 and immediately recognized as an important corrective to a “rational” (or more accurately, values-neutral) economics. He turned common questions on their heads. Why do we need more wealth? Why should labor be seen as an equivalent to mechanization? “To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal: it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

But Schumacher was hardly alone in his insistence that Western economics was a force for disaster. Five years before he published Small is Beautiful, we heard these words from a presidential candidate here in the United States:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Robert F. Kennedy, speech at University of Kansas, 1968

When Nora and I got married some number of years ago, we were both mature adults with fully equipped households. We didn’t need a second Cusinart or a fourth set of dishes or yet another pie plate. So we asked our friends who made things to make us something. We asked our friends who were musicians to sing or to play for us. And we asked everybody else to support an artist or craftsperson they admired.

Our vocations, placed as they are outside of our merely economic sustenance, often result in gifts. We knit or weave, we cook, we sing. We write. And then we give the work to friends and neighbors, not merely as support for their survival, but as a marker of shared values. As another link in the ties that bind.

Look at that terrazzo floor in the image of today’s post. No one will ever know the names of the workers who did that tile work. They are invisible, anonymous. It’s the work itself that has brought hundreds of years of pleasure. It is a moment of grace, in the true sense of that word: an undeserved gift offered freely.

That, to me, feels like the role of the storyteller. We offer our moments of grace to our community, and to those we’ll never know.

Collateral Damage (Fiction Ethics #3)

Oops… thought that was protected.
(image by Nathan Dumlao, via Unsplash)

This is the third of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

Yesterday, we talked about what it means when your friends and acquaintances read your fictional writing, and make assumptions about what you, the writer, must think. Most of our friends haven’t been to MFA programs to study how fiction works, about the difficulties involved in crafting the boundaries between the author, the narrator, and the protagonist, not to mention all the other characters. No, I think that most people read essays and news articles and stories all with a similar presumption of verisimilitude. In an essay, the author and the narrator are (almost always) identical; in fiction, not so much. But that’s a distinction not always evident to a lay readership. 

Vampires notwithstanding. 

I mean, if a story is outlandish enough—vampires, a long-haired girl trapped in a tower, a man who turns into a wolf every so often—it falls into the realm of fairy tale, on the obvious far side of our truth/fiction fence. If a story happened 150 years ago, or 1,500 years ago, we can do the arithmetic to understand that it must not be the author’s memoir. But anything shy of those blaze-orange literary rangefinders leads our readers to place the truth/fiction fence wherever they will, often too close to the documentary side of the property. 

Maybe fiction should come with a surveyor’s certification, naming exactly where the boundaries lie. An author’s affidavit about exactly which details are real and which are not, and what those definitions imply. That signed confession would satisfy our voyeuristic motives for reading, the reality-TV crowd, and thus truncate what fiction is actually for.

Anyway, people read my stories, and they think things about me. That’s merely annoying. I signed up for that. The hazard, and one that happens far too often, is that they think things about my family as well. If these characters do these things, then clearly I do these things as well, which means that my family does… well, whatever seems to be implied by the story.

And that’s a step I cannot bear.

Let’s go back to Peter Ho Davies and the recent book A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, which we touched briefly upon yesterday. It’s a story about a family making the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and then subsequently to have another child, and all of the emotional weight that both decisions imply. The story is told by the male half of the couple, “the writer,” perpetually unnamed. That’s fine, but Peter—the author, if not “the writer”—is not a free agent. He’s married, and has a child. He’s made the decision to tell “his family’s story,” and hints broadly that it’s autofiction, drawn but amended from his life.

Read the opening clause of that sentence again. “He’s made the decision to tell ‘his family’s story’…” His wife did not make that decision, nor did his son. But they will bear some of the weight of his decision.

Now, in part, bearing the weight of a partner’s decision is a normal part of any working life. Half of the couple gets a job in Toledo, and the partner moves alongside and tries to build a life in this place she or he might not have chosen for themselves. But as difficult as that can be, it’s not nearly as personal and vulnerable as having to bear someone else’s definition of who we are and what we did and what we thought. Peter’s wife is a professional in her own right, with colleagues and friends who now all see her differently than they had before the book. She may not have been fully out to all of her friends about the difficult family decisions she’s had to make. But boy howdy, she sure is now.

Even if it’s not true. Even if the wife in Peter’s book is not at all the same person as the wife in Peter’s house. Even if they’re utterly and wholly distinct, she now bears every reader’s “knowledge” about who she is and what she believes and what she’s done and what she thinks. She has become, for us, what our reading leads us to believe about her.

I want to come back to this idea of outing. Politically and culturally, it stems from the practice of naming a public figure as gay when they would have preferred a different level of privacy over that identity. But we can think of it more broadly as any external release of information about us, without our control or agreement.

In our social-media, geolocated age, we don’t think as carefully as we might about privacy. But privacy is one of the most fundamentally personal decisions we can ever make. We decide what information about ourselves is shared, and with whom. We might tell our best friend about that time when… but we wouldn’t want all of our neighbors or work colleagues to know about it. The core of privacy is that we get to decide what to disclose about ourselves, and with whom, and the understandings we jointly come to about what they can do with that knowledge. People tell us sensitive things only because they trust that we will not broadcast them, or use them as currency, or as instruments of harm. My clients tell me things that you will never know. My friends tell me things that you will never know. 

And the fundamental, and never-discussed, element of the writer’s family life is that the writer’s family—without any agreement, without any discussion, without any deliberation—has lost control of their privacy, has lost control of the shaping of their own narrative. The reader’s frame, whatever that might be, is now added to the evidentiary record of the family’s life, even if the reader’s frame may not be warranted by the actual facts of the matter.

Again, as the writer, I signed up for that. So somebody writes (as they have) “And boo-hoo for Childress not getting to spend his life sitting on his ass at a university collecting a nice salary + benefits. I am crying my eyes out just thinking about it.” Or someone else writes that “Childress says that Jews, women, blacks, other races, cripples, and sexual deviants (who together make up the majority of today’s students) don’t belong at university.” <spoiler alert—I said no such thing, in fact the opposite. But stupid people gonna stupid.> Being attacked and misread is an inherent part of being read at all. But my family signed up for none of that, and they’re as likely to be misread as I am, even when they’re not part of the story at all. They entered into no agreements about what they would or would not disclose, how they would be seen and by whom. They have been outed, regardless of whether or not the new story about them is warranted.

Maybe it’s time to write stories about vampires. 

But that would be a guarantee that I’d stop writing. I’m drawn to write about the familiar, helping myself understand the layers beneath the surface. When I was teaching, the very best thing a student could ever say to me was “I’ve seen that a thousand times, but I never thought about it before.” That’s the highlight-reel moment—not merely that the student was seeing this instance anew, but that they now knew that every phenomenon could be broken open in the same way. I want my readers to have that same experience, of recognizing that the quiet lives around them may have far more depth than we’re shown. 

When I wrote my dissertation/first book, about the town I called Curtisville, I had several people from all over the country approach me afterward and ask, “is Curtisville really <fill in their own city here>?” And after a couple of those, I started to answer, “If you think it’s about your town, then it is.” Because really, the goal wasn’t to have them understand some random little city on the Redwood Coast; the goal was to have them wonder whether their community marginalized its teenagers in the same ways.

So too with fiction. The purely entertainment motive of fiction is to look at the strange specimens on display. That’s what the Real Housewives franchise is about, for instance. We’re not asked to reflect on our own lives, just to look at theirs. The larger goal of fiction is to have us look inward. To say to ourselves, “I wonder if my friend is struggling in similar ways. I wonder if there’s something I could do to get unstuck. Maybe I can be brave enough today to try to be vulnerable, maybe there’s reward in that.” It’s that dedication to reality, though, that leads readers to the presumption that the work must be thinly disguised documentary, and that with a little effort, they can pick out the players behind the costume. And the power of fiction becomes, simultaneously, the danger.

As you can probably tell, I don’t have a definitive resolution to this question. I wish that Solomon would deliver me, but no. It’s my own responsibility, every day, to determine how my work affects myself and my family and my friends. I’d look forward to hearing how you deal with those same questions.

More tomorrow.