Writing Too Strong, Too Talented, To Endure

In Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International, New York, 2002, pp. 230), Martin Amis writes (on Maxim Gorky‘s relationship with Stalin and his death following his return from exile in Sorrento to a period of ‘recantation’ and self-debasement):

Writers were pushed, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, into all kinds of unfamiliar shapes by the Bolsheviks….Some more or less genuine writers tried to work ‘toward’ the Bolsheviks. Their success depended inversely on the size of their talent. Talentless writers could flatter the regime. Talented writers could not flatter the regime, or not for long….In general, writers never find out how strong their talent is: that investigation begins with their obituaries. In the USSR, writers found how good they were when they were still alive. If the talent was strong, only luck or the silence could save them. If the talent was weak, they could compromise and survive. Thus, for the writers, the Bolsheviks wielded promethean power; they summoned posterity and inserted it into the here and now.

 Amis’ description of the writer’s fate is romantic and optimistic in suggesting that a postmortem investigation into their lives and talents-by their erstwhile ‘audience’–is ever undertaken. Au contraire, sadly enough, even death does not rescue the writer from obscurity, it does not find the writer the readers he did not have while living. A great deal changes when a life comes to an end, but a writer’s anonymity endures. The few exceptions to this rule give us no reason to imagine that the stony silence which was the norm in a writer’s life will change to a clamoring reception in the graveyard; they merely highlight the fate of most.

This fact makes the possibility of an environment like the one Amis makes note of even more intriguing. It emits a reception so acute that it provides to the writer the most immediate, powerful feedback of all; it summons up the writer’s ultimate fate and makes it proximal. The proof of the writer’s talent lies in his ability to provoke a response, which such an environment provides: a gratifying confirmation–even if at some cost–that most other writers pine for. In such circumstances anonymity is precious, in ensuring the continuance of one’s life but it is also damning: every second of this stretched out existence is a perpetuation of a tale told by this world about your incompetence, your lack of talent, your inability to provoke a reprisal of any kind. Stick your neck out: this fame is the axe that does not fall. Imprisonment for the writer in such circumstances cannot be ‘enough’; he must be forced to stop writing, by death, or by solitary confinement. The restriction must be total; the freedom to be taken away must be the one that matters, movement of the mind, and not just the body, must come to an utter halt.

Here then, lies the most vivid confirmation of a writer’s greatness in his art: the enforced demand that it cease and desist.



Teaching Self-Evaluation For The Semester That Was (Almost)

Classes for the fall semester ended last week; finals and grading lie ahead of me. It’s time for another self-evaluation of my teaching. As usual, I find myself earning a mixed grade for my efforts.

This semester I taught three classes: Philosophy of Law, Political Philosophy, and Introduction to Philosophy. (Interestingly enough, this is the first time in my thirteen years at Brooklyn College that I’ve taught Introduction to Philosophy.)

Let me get the bad news out of the way. I do not think I did a good job in my Philosophy of Law. I was unable to make headway on the oldest problem of all: getting students to do the assigned readings. And neither was I, by sheer dint of effort and pointed interactions with my students, able to get a robust discussion going in class. I was also too easily distracted and put off by some of the body language on display–bored expressions, slumped posture. It was all too clear to me I was not being able to make the material interesting or engaging and as the semester wore on, my sense of futility grew; I could sense my interest in the class lessening. My students and I were not helped by a classroom that was alternately too hot and too noisy. In an effort to shake things up, I changed the seating arrangement in class, going from the traditional ‘teacher-in-front’ to a square configuration with me sitting down with my students. It did not work. Perhaps I gave up too easily; I should have been more unconventional, and I should have tried individual interventions–by email, or in my office hours–with some of the students most clearly in need of one.

In my Introduction to Philosophy class, I adopted an unconventional tactic to introduce students to philosophy: I would do so via the Stoics. My syllabus consisted of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius; through their writings I would introduce students to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political philosophy. I would begin each class by asking my students to write a brief reaction to a verse/chapter/section from the assigned reading; we would then use their responses as the foundation for the class discussion. I had mixed results in this project. I was teaching at night, in one of those terrible 150-minute slots, which are a pedagogical disaster. My students were tired, and sometimes unable to summon up the energy to participate in class discussion. They did, however, find plenty to provoke and intrigue them in the Stoics, and by virtue of connecting Stoic nostrums for a good life to their own personal experiences, I was often able to evoke vigorous responses from, and interactions with, them. Many students spoke with a great deal of feeling about how Stoic insights resonated with them; these responses would, in turn, provoke other students to speak up. Thanks to the Stoics, I was also able to introduce the students to Buddhism (they found the Buddha‘s ‘no-self’ theory of self utterly fascinating.) In retrospect, I would say that I could have dropped one of Seneca or Epictetus and brought in some other readings to supplement this unrelenting diet of the Stoics. I look forward to conducting a class like this again with a modified syllabus.

My Political Philosophy class was greatly aided by a classroom which featured a seminar table, thus automatically introducing a more informal, less hierarchical spatial structure to the class discussion. I was also aided by interesting and provocative readings, by the idiocy on display this election season, and by many students being diligent about the assigned readings. I stayed very close to the texts, and read aloud many passages in class, stopping again and again to discuss them with my students. These class discussions were easily the best I had all semester in any of my classes.

I continued to struggle with grading writing assignments but was happy to note that at least on a couple of occasions students took advantage of my offer of resubmission opportunities and came to see me with revised papers, after working on which they secured higher grades. Some of these personal interactions were very rewarding as I could sense students were able to learn something about the difficulty and the pleasures of the writing process by working with me.

Thus endeth another semester of teaching. (Grading remains though.) More mixed results; more food for thought for the future.

Writing And The Hundred Book Summer

Shortly after I have returned my student’s writing assignments to them, I start setting up appointments with those students who want to talk about their grades. In these consultations, as I go over the importance of returning to the reading assignments, preparing an early draft, meeting the writing tutor, revising often, having a friend read drafts, and so on, I sometimes also tell them a little story about how reading more can make you into a better writer.

A couple of years ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Robert Viscusi told me how he had transformed himself from an ‘average’ student into a ‘good’ one, one with some talent for writing. After his freshman year of college, he found himself in the privileged position of having a great deal of time on his hands that summer. I do not remember if summer employment was disdained, not felt necessary or merely part-time, but be that as it may, he had time to read.

And so he read that summer. Prodigiously. At the rate of a book a day. He read novels, short stories, history, the lot. He read and read, clocking in at, I think, a hundred books. Prior to that summer, he had been a B-student. After that summer, he never got less than an A. And he found too, a facility and a talent for writing that had not made itself manifest before.

I tell my students that I don’t expect them to read a book a day. Given the constraints on their time and energy, and their often radically different stations in life, this would be unrealistic. But I do ask them to pay attention to the transformation in a student’s scholarly abilities by this devotion to reading. And more to the point, to the change in writing abilities.

Those who read more write better. They encounter writing in its many different forms; they develop and acquire a taste; they are exposed to examples, good and bad, of the art and craft of writing; they internalize, subconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, crucial elements of style; they see writers explain, persuade, argue, tell stories, complain, mock, ridicule; they notice verbal trickery and subtlety; they witness the deployment of rhetoric; and most ambitiously, they might imagine they would like to get a piece of the action and do it better than those whom they read. Or at least emulate them.

I find grading papers extraordinarily hard and still struggle with providing adequate feedback to my students on their papers. (My comments on papers are brief and synoptic; I do not micro-markup.) It is easier for me to remind students of methodology–‘in most instances you can delete the first paragraph you wrote in your first draft; most likely, it’s just throat clearing’–than it is to tell them what is wrong with a particular piece of writing.

But I can always fall back on a reliable instruction: if you want to write better, start reading more. Way more than you do now. That’s good advice for me too.



My Favorite Reader

For as long as I have been married, my wife has been my favorite reader. She reads and offers comments on almost everything I write, from the brief posts here (and at The Cordon) to my books.  She reads my angry emails, my applications for various academic offerings–nothing is too long or too short or trivial to not be read by her. She patiently puts up with a never-ending stream of requests from me: “Can you read this today? Can you read this by tomorrow? Can you tell me whether this makes any sense? Do you think I’m clear enough here? Is this just trivial bullshit? Are you sure this isn’t complete crap?” And on and on. Once I’m reassured by her that everything is a ‘go’, I can press ‘send’ or ‘publish.’ (Early on, in my academic writing, I established a simple standard: it had to be comprehensible to my wife, an educated non-academic. That glove has to fit, or it’s a no-go.)

Writers are a sensitive lot, of course, and so I don’t take too kindly to some of the criticism sent my way–even from folks whom I’ve asked for critique. There are times when my wife and I sit down to discuss her comments on a draft of mine, and our conversation becomes edgy and just a little contentious. My writing is limpid and clear; how could it possibly be ambiguous or confusing? Surely, this aside that I’ve just made here is not an irrelevant distraction but a valuable and useful supplement to the central thread of discussion? Of course, this sentence stands on its own, and my elaboration here, to you, will not be needed by the reader. There are times, indeed, when my wife will terminate a debriefing session with a brief and exasperated, “Look, those are my comments as a reader; do what you want with them.”

And I do. Even if I’m defensive and stubborn at times, too much in love with my transient creations.

The hardest suggestions to take on board are inevitably, deletions. Last week, I argued–with some vigor–in favor of retaining a particular tiny sliver of my writing: a sentence that ended a paragraph by hearkening back to a previous chapter. I thought the backwards reference worked and strenuously resisted the suggestion that it be deleted. I finally walked away, irate,  in a huff, saying “That sentence stays.” The next morning, on waking up, before I even made my morning coffee, I walked over to my desk, opened up the manuscript file, turned to the right page, and deleted the offending sentence. My wife had been right; it had to go. And what a relief it was to see it disappear off the page.

I’ve written many co-authored works and I’m grateful to all my collaborators on those projects for their expenditures of creative and intellectual energy in making my writing better. I can see their impress in every word that has finally made it to the printed page. But along with them, my favorite reader is also present.

The author includes the reader too.

A Teaching Self-Evaluation

Today is the last day of classes for the fall semester of 2014. Today is the day for reviews, discussing paper plans (and in one class, surprisingly enough, answering questions from students who wanted to know a bit more about my personal background.) A week from today, I will administer finals in two classes and collect final papers for the third. Then, a brief and frenetic phase of grading before I submit grades. And another semester–my twenty-second at Brooklyn College–will be in the bag. I will see some students from this semester again–in other classes, on campus. (As of now, I know that at least three students from this semester’s classes have registered for my classes next semester.) Some students I will never see again–they’ve entered my life briefly (and I theirs), and then moved on.

As always, I wonder about how good a job I did.

I did some things right. I picked interesting readings and assigned a fair amount every week. I never got the feeling, as the semester wore on, that I had assigned too much or too little. (In my Social Philosophy class, I realized very early on, that I had assigned too much reading and tackled that problem by simply slowing down and letting readings fall off the end of the syllabus.) The novels I selected for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class were uniformly interesting and thought-provoking; the anthologies I picked for my Philosophy of Religion and Social Philosophy classes brought my students into contact with diverse styles of philosophical engagement. (And the books I picked were not a financial burden for my students.) I managed to provoke good discussions in many of the class meetings, and often did a good job of carrying out close, detailed analysis and exegesis of the texts. I asked many questions of students, and was able to provoke many interesting and thoughtful responses from them. I was able to place many issues discussed in class into broader philosophical contexts.

I continued to struggle with some old problems. I frequently found it hard to get students to do the readings and come to class prepared to discuss them; this remains a frustrating and vexing business, and I feel stuck in a rut of sorts. I showed little imagination in devising writing or reading exercises beyond the standard paper assignment and group discussion exercise. I was not able to provide more than brief comments on student papers. (I did, however, provide good feedback to those students who came and saw me after they had received their graded papers.) My style of teaching continues to rely a great deal on students being independently motivated, which often does not take care of those who struggle with motivation and inspiration.

Teaching remains a challenging business: it is exhilarating, exhausting and perplexing. At its best, it is creative and edifying; at its worst, it is infuriating and demoralizing. At the end of the semester, as always, I’m struck by what an acute blend of science and art it is. That, I suppose, has a great deal to do with its charms and lures and pains.

Semester’s End: A Teaching Self-Evaluation

As this semester winds down to its inevitable, slow, painful end, it’s time to reflect just a little on what went right and what went wrong with my teaching. I taught three classes: Philosophical Issues in Literature, Core Philosophy (Honors), and Political Philosophy. These three constituted three ‘new’ preparations for me: I last taught Core Philosophy (not at Brooklyn College) some fifteen years ago, and Social Philosophy (the second of our pair of Social and Political Philosophy classes) some eight years ago (and besides, this semester’s syllabus was drastically reworked to reflect my focus on revolutions).

My grade for this semester, I think, was a solid B. I did some things right: I devised an interestingly unconventional syllabus for Political Philosophy and picked a reasonably diverse and provocative set of readings for Philosophical Issues in Literature; I managed to spark some reasonably robust discussion in all three classes on many occasions;  my reading assignments were reasonably sized; I asked questions and encouraged students to ask them as well; I provided good introductions to many central philosophical issues in both my core classes and often managed to pique interest in those areas; I often provided detailed exegeses of difficult passages and made some interesting connections with other philosophical debates. Among other things. (Says he, flatteringly.)

I got some things wrong as well: my syllabus for the Core Philosophy class could have been more inspired; I failed, as I often did, to get many students roped into discussions and in some cases, gave up on some of them; I did not give very detailed or helpful written comments on papers (though in my defense, I would say I was good at meeting students one-on-one and providing detailed feedback on their papers on those occasions); I was sometimes disorganized in my discussions in Political Philosophy class; I did not pay enough attention to the written responses my students provided me for Political Philosophy (I deeply regret this because many of the responses were excellent and could have served to spark some very interesting discussions); my discussions in my Philosophy Core were a little rushed at times; and so on.

I have now taught, on and off, for over twenty years, ten of those as a full-time faculty member. My challenges remain the same: devising syllabi that are not tedious for the students and myself; sparking robust discussion in class; coming up with an evaluation scheme that is fair and pedagogically sound; helping students with their writing; explaining difficult arguments clearly; finding ways to represent philosophical positions in a way that is fair and not superficial. I have yet to master any of these, and every semester finds a way to either remind me of my inadequacies or induce a step backwards in a domain where I thought progress had been made.

My students continue to delight, confound, perplex, and edify. They raise me up, they bring me down. I sense I am a small part in their lives, but for fourteen weeks, twice a year, they are a very big deal in mine. I will see some of them again in other classes. Others will graduate, yet others will avoid me like the plague. Some will ask me for recommendation letters, others will advise their friends to give me a pass.  Our encounter, for now, is over. I can testify to the traces they have left; their lives will testify to whether I was able to make any sort of impression at all.