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Being Lead to Water

wallaceOne cold, rainy, October evening in 2011, I found myself at an Illinois Authors’ Dinner hosted by the Illinois Library Association. As I sat rattling my teaspoon around a half cup of surprisingly good coffee, I chatted with my friend Eric who was similarly roped into attending this dinner after a long day’s work and a shitty commute from the pastoral setting of Palos Hills, where our campus is located, down the Tri-state, past airport traffic, and into the hell of Rosemont, Il—a town replete with oppressive office buildings, crappy—even if well appointed—airport hotels, and bumper-to-bumper luxury SUVS edging their way to their own sleepy suburbs. There we sat in the basement ballroom of the InterContinental Hotel beneath the amber, incandescent glow of the crystal chandeliers and amidst the din of librarian banter. We waited for the evening’s keynote speaker—Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours.

Cunningham was all right. I had read nothing of his except his most prestigious claim to fame. I enjoyed the book for its overlapping narrative and the intertextual connections to Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, I taught the book for a handful of semesters in my intro to fiction class. The book was good; Cunningham was all right—unremarkable. Honestly, with four years between then and now, not much of his talk sticks with me.

It’s funny how something so insignificant, so overlooked, can reach out of the past and tap you on the shoulder years later.

Until this day, I thought nothing of that night four years ago. It’s returned today, though, and it has nothing to do with Cunningham, or librarian small talk, or Illinois authors, or surprisingly good coffee. Rather the night has returned to me because through the fog of seemingly insignificant detail something has emerged. While clinking spoons and sipping coffee that night, and being mildly bothered by the elitist, arrogance of Michael Cunningham, my friend Eric made an offhand remark: “This is no ‘This Is Water.’” He told me about a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005 with the title “This Is Water.” Eric took a class under Wallace at Illinois State and seemed to have a special fondness for his work. I hadn’t heard of this talk, but because of Eric’s enthusiasm in mentioning this speech and Wallace, I told myself I’d look it up later. I never did, and four years went by.

Just recently, though, through surfing some random internet wave, I stumbling upon said speech and Eric’s small, offhand remark reached out of the past and tapped me on the shoulder once again . Here is David Foster Wallace’s speech “This Is Water.”


 

Wallace has a way of articulating a simple and terrible truth that I have been feeling for some time now but have not or could not quite put to words. He asserts that we must learn to override our default setting of being completely, utterly self-absorbed long enough to choose to see things differently. In discussing what he calls the cliché of a liberal arts education being about “learning how to think,” he suggests we look past the “lame and banal” platitude to consider the “great and terrible truth” that lies beneath. He reminds us that learning how to think really means “exercis[ing] some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious…” We get to choose what we pay attention to and how we “construct meaning from experience”—that is, if we can override our default setting of being the center of our own universe long enough to see things differently.

And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.David Foster Wallace

Wallace strikes a beautiful balance in this piece between intellectual abstraction and the hard-hitting concrete detail of daily life. He pairs away the “rhetorical bullshit” and delivers his message with such urgency. It is not “fun and breezy,” but it is the truth.

In listening to the recording of the speech he delivered and in reading the text of the speech published by Little, Brown and Company, I am struck by a couple small but significant differences. As Wallace talks about the adage of the mind being “an excellent servant but a terrible master,” as he makes a reference to adults who commit suicide by shooting themselves in the head, and then asserts “most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger,” one can’t help but think of the circumstances of Wallace’s own death which would come by his own hand three years later. In his speech, Wallace says, “The capital-T truth is about life before death.” In the written manuscript alone, he adds, “It’s about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.” For whatever reason, he chose to omit this latter line from his speech to the Kenyon graduates. Perhaps, in the moment, he found this line to be even too much capital-T truth for him.

Another small but remarkable difference between the speech and the written text comes right at the end. Early in the piece he conveys what he calls a “didactic little story” about a religious guy and an atheist talking about their divergent worldviews. He talks about how the atheist tried out religion when stuck in a blizzard. He prays to be saved, and then comes along a couple of Eskimos who guide him back to camp. Later, the atheist rejects the notion that this was some sort of divine intervention but was rather mere luck of circumstance. Wallace uses this story early in his talk to make a point about how we each individually will construct meaning differently based on our individual belief templates. Fair enough. The interesting addition at the end of the written piece, though, is when Wallace writes, “These Eskimos might be much more than they seem.” Interestingly, this addition (omitted from the spoken version) created a religious overtone, amplified given the emphasis of placement at the end of the piece.

Wallace talks about another truth towards the end of his speech: the truth that we all worshop. The only choice we have, he says, is what to worship. He speaks about the dangers of worshiping money, power, beauty, intellect, and so on. He tells us our culture would have us worship these things and give us “the freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” But this is not real freedom.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. This is real freedom.David Foster Wallace

I am glad that Eric’s offhand remark so many years ago led me to Wallace’s “This Is Water.” It has left an indelible mark on me. It reminds me that each day, I have the freedom to choose what to think and to create meaning from my experience. It reminds me of the work I have to do to remain aware of “what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain site.” To be present. To be mindful. To consider how infinitely small I am in the grand scheme of meaning, and yet to know I am not alone.

used shoes, service, and humility

A busy semester has come to a close, and finally now I have a few minutes to reflect in writing. Again, as I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been digging further into service learning as my pedagogical approach of choice–and really immersing myself much more deeply into acts of service in the process. Many of my students, as this semester has wrapped up, have reported what I Shoes. Heavier than you think... Loading up to bring the shoes over to Share Your Soles. Shoes are heavier than you think.can only call “transformative” experiences. I get comments occasionally from students about how the class really changed them, but I’m usually skeptical about such remarks–especially if they come before final grades are posted. Are they only telling me what they think I want to hear? I’m no less skeptical this time around, but I can say that I’ve gotten remarkably more of such comments this semester than ever before–and many continue to come in now–even after grades have been posted. I can’t help but think I struck a chord with students. People want to be involved, they want their lives to be connected to others and to worthwhile endeavors; it’s just that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. I think the class this semester gave some of them a place to start. It’s been cool. I can say that this is the first semester I can remember where I didn’t feel beaten up at the end. Rather, I’m feeling energized and excited about what’s next.

I remain engaged with some of the organizations I started working with along with my students this past semester–The Share Your Soles Foundation is one of those organizations. In fact, I only just recently wrapped up a two-month long shoe drive (that started as a student project, but eventually became my project). I also continue to assist Share Your Soles with their newsletter, other mailings, and writing as needed. Thursday Chris and I attended their anniversary fundraising event, as well. It’s been quite fun being involved with this organization and meeting all kinds of cool people along the way. I plan to continue my involvement. If you ever met Mona Purdy–the founder of Share Your Soles–you might wonder if I even have a choice in the matter. Mona is the kind of person you just can’t say no to, but that’s a good thing–truly.

It’s in moments like these that one understands that honor lies in the service of others.

One thing I am most appreciating in the service-learning work I am doing with my students is the opportunity to work side-by-side with students outside of the classroom. The baggage of the student-teacher relationship really falls away when you are sorting used shoes together, sweeping a floor, or boxing food. It’s grunt work–sometimes dirty–but it is humbling. I am reminded of my time in Japan studying Aikido. After a hard practice I recall vividly how the master whom everybody so revered as expert and wise teacher would be the first to take a wet rag from a bucket of water and–on hands and knees–begin wiping down the mats. We all worked together in the most mundane but necessary of tasks–side-by-side regardless of rank, age, or status. It’s in moments like these that one understands that honor lies in the service of others.

students acting out: re/approaching service-learning

Okay, so it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve sit down to write to this blog. Life keeps happening, and that’s a good thing, but sometimes it happens so quickly and with such intensity that it’s hard to find the time to pause for reflection–even though it is so very important. Historically, this time of year is always busy for me–finishing up the spring semester, trying to keep on top of work, enjoying the distractions of spring, and so on. This year is not much different, except that I have a few new interests and preoccupations–and maybe a challenge or two–that are keeping me busy and away from the glow of my computer screen–again, a good thing.

They were overwhelmed (or maybe lazy and immature), didn’t know where to start, and ultimately let their inertia get the best of them.

Work has been very challenging and fun this semester, as I’m giving this whole “service learning” thing another whirl. I tried it last spring with disappointing results. Students lacked motivation and interest; they never got past their own inertia and generally had an attitude of indifference that sucked the life right from me. I remember joking with my office mates, saying, “This is the semester I have finally lost faith in humanity.” I was joking, but truly I felt demoralized in a way I had never felt before in my teaching career. It was a hard semester.

One year later, I’m taking my lessons learned and enjoying a much better experience. This semester I’m doing a much better job of “scaffolding” to use a bit of pedagogical parlance. Last year, I threw the students into the thick of it, asked them right from the start to begin designing and implementing service–and to a larger degree–“activism” projects of their own. They were overwhelmed (or maybe lazy and immature), didn’t know where to start, and ultimately let their inertia get the best of them. It was a miserable failure in most instances. The success I am enjoying so far this year is due to an adjusted strategy that incorporates the following:

  • Embracing “service” rather than “activism” (which proved too scary for most students last time)
  • Leading by example and having a boatload of fun myself (while pulling the students along for the ride)
  • Setting goals bigger than the traditional academic experience and trusting that learning will come from it
  • Ensuring these “bigger” goals are met (even if a lot of the students flake out)

maybe “service” first, and “activism” later

The first adjustment I made this semester was to focus on “service” before “activism.” Last time, I really pushed this idea of activism–of making important changes to the structures in place that create or perpetuate the problems to begin with–rather than just attending to the symptoms of the problem through service. I believe both service and activism are important (and, in many ways, service is a kind of activism), but most students weren’t quite ready for the level of initiative and the resistance faced by the outside world when doing “activist-learning.”

Service comes from a place of kindness and responsibility, rather than from resistance and upheaval.

Service-learning is easier (but still not easy). Service feels better than activism in many ways because nobody fights one’s desire to serve. In fact, in most cases, people welcome you and thank you for the work you’ve done. It feels good to serve–unlike “-isms” which are hard pills to swallow. Even the word “activism” carries a connotation that doesn’t sit well with some students. They don’t fully understand the nuance of the term and generally have negative associations with the word. Again, this is where service feels very different for students. It comes from a place of kindness and responsibility, rather than from resistance and upheaval. I still want to push on toward greater activism in my classes, but for now I’ll settle for service. Good things are getting done. That’s what I wanted more than anything.

leading by example

Service and overall civic engagement is important to me. This is why I’ve made it a focus in my classes; however, I’d fallen out of the habit of getting involved in these activities as much as I would like. This semester, I vowed to show my students how it’s done. For the first half of the semester, I put together a handful of service-learning outings–each of which I would attend and participate in–and asked students to plan to attend at least one of these experiences. If their schedules didn’t allow them to attend any of the several events I arranged, they would have to plan and follow-through with a service-learning field trip of their own. (Most found a way to go to one that I had arranged.) The idea here was to pave the way for the students. All they had to do was show up, participate in the service experience, and write the critical reflection that followed. Ideally, in a service-learning setting, students would design their own experiences based on their own interests and areas of concern. That would come later.

Teacher/student roles fell away and we were working together on a single mission to help people in dire need.

During this initial experience, students got the chance to feel what it’s like to participate in a service project and to enjoy the sense of classroom community that comes from working together. It was kind of neat to work side-by-side with students outside of the classroom. Whether we were packing food in teams at Feed My Starving Children, boxing pasta at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, or problem solving most efficient ways to sort shoes at the Share Your Soles Foundation, teacher/student roles fell away and we were working together. It was humbling for me as we set our focus not on grades and lesson-plans but rather on a single mission to help people in dire need.

setting bigger goals

With each passing year, I inch closer and closer to a teaching/learning experience that has very little to do with grades, evaluation, “products” exclusive to classroom, carrot-and-stick tactics, and anything that resembles traditional notions of school. The step I took this semester might have been more mental on my part than much else, but it is making a big difference. Since taking on this service-learning thing, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of “action.” About a year and a half ago, I became really frustrated thinking about all the time and energy spent in classrooms across college campuses (and schools) everywhere. And for what? Students shuffle about, take their tests, get their grades, and–if they are lucky–graduate. Filling in bubbles with number two pencils (or writing essays that no one but a teacher would ever read) struck me as a short-sighted waste of time. With the world in such crisis, I felt incredibly irresponsible sipping my coffee in front of my classes leading discussions that never got beyond the hypothetical. It was time for a change. I wanted our time together to result in more. I wanted it to be immediately useful not just to those in the classroom, but to people in our communities–people in need. At the heart of service-learning is the idea that we can both learn (and meet curricular goals) and act in ways that are truly meaningful and helpful to others all at once. So this is what I had set out to do.

Filling in bubbles with number two pencils struck me as a short-sighted waste of time.

This shift that I most recently made in my approach is a significant mental shift further toward the immediate action. My early experiments with service learning kept teaching goals at the forefront of my mind. Honestly, this semester, I am keeping the service goals at the forefront of my mind instead. I want our class to accomplish something of importance for our community. I want the results to be measurable and real–and not worry about the “school” stuff so much. The result? Students are engaged, scurrying to keep up, and honestly I believe they are learning and performing well academically even though the focus is now on other, bigger things. When you’re in the world, working with others, doing important work–the learning just happens.

meeting those goals with or without the students

There are three structural components to the service-learning work we are doing as a class this semester. During the first half of the semester, as I mentioned above, I arranged service-learning experiences for the students to sign-up for and attend. Easy-peasy. For the second half of the semester, it was the students’ turn. I offered resources and support, but ultimately, they had to identify or create service-learning opportunities of their own and follow-through with them. (The idea was after seeing me set things up during the first half of the semester, they could do it for themselves during the second half.) The final capstone to this semester is a service-learning/volunteer fair called “ACT OUT: Education through Action.” At this event, students showcase their service-learning experiences and research through a poster session. The community organizations they worked with are also invited to exhibit their organizations at information tables adjacent the students’ displays. The event will be further bolstered by having a small set of “spotlight” speakers–service leaders from our community–present at the fair. The entire college community is invited to attend. This event is a big deal, and I made up my mind from the beginning that it would succeed with or without my students.

The event must succeed, and I want my students to be a part of that–but I will not allow the event to bomb in the name of “learning through one’s mistakes.”

Making this project a success with or without my students? Does that sound like something a teacher should say? Maybe not. In fact, it’s not something I would have said last year. I have tried student-designed and student-run events in the past with very mixed results. I’ve always believed in taking a hands-off approach to these kinds of events–letting the students run with them for better or for worse. I figured that learning through these experiences didn’t always result in a quality event, but the learning is what mattered. This semester, my thought process is just a little bit different. My approach this semester is that I want the event to be a success no matter what. If it is a great success, I want my students to believe it was because of what they did and to feel the rewards of that. If my students totally flake out and drop the ball on the whole thing, I want the event to be a success anyway. That’s my thinking. The event must succeed, and I want my students to be a part of that–but I will not allow the event to bomb in the name of “learning through one’s mistakes.” This shift, I think, has really amped up the intensity of the planning for the event and students are feeling it. This is a good thing. They know a lot is on the line.

as for me?

One cannot help but be changed when serving others. By participating in this work with my students at the start of this semester, I’ve gotten hooked. I’ve been getting more and more involved with some of the organizations I introduced my students to at the start of the semester. Also, in pushing my students (and sometimes dragging them behind me) toward this “Act Out” service-learning fair, I have been reaching out to more and more local non-profit organizations who are doing some amazing things right in our own backyard. I’m hoping that I can continue to build relationships, get more deeply involved, make this first of many “Act Out” events a success, and keep the momentum going. Things are happening. Things are getting done. We are acting now, and it’s just the beginning…

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