Following the Rules, Following the Truth, Following the Heart

I am teaching a writing class to high school sophomores and seniors on Saturdays, and in planning lessons I find myself constantly aware of a three-way tension. I’ve called that tension a matter of rules, truth, and heart in titling this post.

In a high school context, success often means writing to the rule and meeting the expectations of adults and the committees they form to select who receives what and who attends what. It’s unfair to take up our scant time together sharing my critique of the five-paragraph essay. As much as I might long to tell them that it’s not real writing, it is still the writing they’re often assigned to do (and how cruel is it to try to say that’s not real?). Nor is it helpful to share my fear that writing that can be judged by standardized testing autograders or minimum-wage rubric-applyers is dead writing. They have to take and pass those autograded rubric-riddled tests in order to accomplish their goals of AP credit and first-generation college attendance. And as much as I might have harsh things to say about the rules, it is perhaps better that at least we begin with rules, with constraints that make thinking possible. When faced with questions about identity, curiosities, and values, it seems cruel to also leave open the questions of form and structure, as if we might very well expect a prose poem or a short film or a sculpture of beach glass and mashed potatoes.

The truth is that high-schoolers are likely too young to write genuine answers to questions that pull so deeply from an inner world. While profound thinking has been underway since infancy, profound articulation has not. High-potential students learn to sound like they are expected to sound. And so when faced with grandiose topics, there is a strong temptation to meet expectations (rules!). Temptation can lead to falsity, to histrionics, to fooling oneself about the certainty of one’s ideas, plans, and visions. So strong is this temptation, the writer may even fool herself — as I often did — into believing that, backed into a corner of abstract profundity, whatever I came up with, if it sounded good, was somehow also true. The work produced is thus not a fair assessment of their potential to blossom in a given habitat.

The tension of heart speaks to my heart as a teacher — to the kind of education I believe to be most effective in building up thinkers and citizens and parents and leaders and creators. I want to teach durable skills that will sustain these students through following the rules and into a world where rule-following is less valuable — support them through learning their own truths and ambiguities many times over — and speak to their hearts. My desire is to facilitate these students toward thinking critically, creatively, reflectively about their own experiences, about their ideas and interests, about the world they are rapidly becoming independent within. We had only a short time together, and I wanted to speak to their hearts — their adolescent, sometimes eye-rolling, sometimes sentimental, sometimes frustrated, sometimes overwhelmed hearts.

I am sure that the plan I devised falls far short of the vision I had for it, both in planning and execution, but in the end, I felt that I did a good thing — something that met identified criteria instead of veering into muddy fields; something that advanced towards a willingness to face one’s own truth; something that built up a sense of capacity and self-reflection. In the end I find myself grateful — to teach and share these thoughts, to have my intentions become corporeal in the words on their pages, is a gift from student to teacher. And now I find that I’ve reached the word limit that they are allowed, and the fifth paragraph of what is allowed to be written about what is felt and thought, and I end. (650)


A critical reflection on the basis for exegesis

Textual exegesis (that is, close reading) is the process of examining a core text on minute basis — at the level of the phrase, the word, or even the syllable, often with resort to co-current sources: other texts of the time, known history of the time, artifacts of culture at the time, and so forth. Harvard professor Gregory Nagy, a prominent scholar on the ancient Greeks, calls this the process of “reading out of the text” rather than “reading into the text”. That is, we mine the depths of the text for every scrap of meaning, re-infusing it with context so that we can better understand what the words might have meant to the original authors and audiences. This teaching process is common with esteemed texts which are typically read in translation (Homeric epics, the Bible), understood to be foundational or precursory to more modern thought (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Machievelli, Nietzsche), or to literary works made strange over time with the evolution of language (Chaucer, Shakespeare).

Exegesis is an example of critical textual analysis — by restricting our focus to what the text contains from an objective point of view, we avoid the assumptions imposed by our contemporary context. Language evolves, scientific knowledge advances, religions rise and fall. If we base our understanding of a work on modern meanings of words, especially if we are influenced by the happenstances of translation, the sense of the text can quickly be lost.

Exegesis builds understanding of text, and can give learners the experience of gaining mastery over something difficult. Words which once flowed by as a bewildering river are transformed into molecules neatly obeying physical laws. Looking more deeply, we begin to see the marvelous fractal motion they obey as a fluid, and a new beauty emerges from the understood order.

However, fluid dynamics are not the only way to understand a river. A river has experiential qualities: the ceaseless senseless flowing and gurgling, the flowing of future into memory, the damp phantasmagoria of stories untold and ever slipping away. A river has symbolic qualities: the tales we tell about ourselves as people born beside rivers or reborn from them, who cross rivers and travel down them in order to come of age, to escape from evil, to become free. A river has historical qualities: human civilization first formed along rivers and learned to explain the world through its flows and floods, making practical the agriculture, navigation, and power generation which brings us the modern world. A river has bio-ecological qualities: a home for life-cycles of intricate webs of creatures, the cycling of water from cloud to sea, the endless wearing away of land to sand. All these meanings and more can be found within river — but such broader reflection is typically excluded by an exegetical approach.

Opening our thinking to broader meanings and qualities — experiential, symbolic, historical, bio-ecological — need not require that we abandon a commitment to reading out of a text; we already know the hazards of simply reading meaning into a text. But also possible is the notion of reading ourselves into the text — by coming to embody the text and explore it as a living being, smelling with its nostrils, thinking with its mind, until we can perceive both how the original audience experienced their world and also — with as much significance — how their patterns give us new perspective on what is contemporary and on what is universal.

A footnote on coaching strategy: I often find that I am changed through narrative experience — an honest empathetic storytelling, the editorial cartoon that sums and skewers, the stunning photograph that evokes wonder. Evidence, proof, and argument can surely open my mind to change as well — but fully embodying that change seems to require that I realize (and here I mean realize not only the ‘ah-ha’ moment, but also in the sense of making real) and observe from within my own reflections rather than as a response to the stimulus of external data. Joining in the re-potentiating of exegesis might be as simple as exploring the river image I have shared, or attendance at a marvelous re-interpretation of a classic Sophoclean drama, or the rewriting of contemporary epics into a recognizably classic frame.

This essay is my response to this prompt. The UMass Boston program Critical and Creative Thinking employs a unique style of workshop — the Collaborative Exploration — for the investigation of topics of interest. The theme this semester involves investigating the basis of critical thinking as a discipline.

New Site

After a period of radio silence, I’m re-establishing my online presence through this site. My intention is to create a home for organizing my vague multiplicity of identities, news of discoveries and publications of potential interest, as well as reflections about technology, education, and the emerging future.