tenkara up in Michigan
I've got a new piece up at Public Books, about the phrase "critical thinking." It's something of a continuation of a post here from a few months prior, and might be part of a nascent short book on liberal arts.
But mostly this summer I've been working on my book-in-progress called Up in Michigan, which is a bioregional meditation on the Anthropocene—grounded but limited, geographically (if paradoxically) constrained. I'm trying to enact some "situated theory," as Doug Armato referred to it when I described it to him when we were chatting at MLA last january.
Now with full acknowledgement that I’m “blogging” here, and that the above photo was taken with an iPhone, I wanted to write something about how nice it has been to be relatively unplugged this summer.
During the frantic pace of the school year, life can seem like an unending sprint of checking emails (and responding when necessary), participating in online surveys and committee elections, going to planning and department meetings, eking out rare minutes and occasional hours to write, preparing to teach classes, actually teaching classes, and doing it all over again the next week. Particularly in these hard times for higher education, when the basic premise of what we do* is under scrutiny, when administration turns the screws on any seeming inefficiency or incalculable part of the process, and when Friday afternoons become dreaded, recurring doomsdays for decision-announcing emails—the stresses of the job mount, and morale plummets.
Summer is thus a welcome respite, and once again I'm very fortunate to be able to be up in Michigan, overspilling my parents' small home with my boisterous family assemblage in tow.
Up here I've been revisiting my favorite lakes (and exploring some new ones) throughout the national park, and taking walks in the woods and in the dunes along the lakeshore. My son and I hiked to a massive beaver lodge, and another day we saw a bobcat loping along a riverbank.
Inspired by a conversation with two of my favorite people last summer, I have been experimenting with tenkara fly fishing—basically a very long limber pole with a line and a fly on the end, and no reel. It's ultra-simple fishing, with minimal equipment—this is what makes it great. It forces you to focus on a small radius of water, aquatic vegetation patterns, and subtle movements. Tenkara was designed and perfected long ago in Japan for mountain stream fishing, and I would love to try it back in Montana where I really learned to trout fish, but for now I've adapted it to marshy lake fishing, for the bass and bluegill that swim in the clear waters of the glacially scraped lakes around my little corner of Michigan.
I've been reading books that are giving me ideas and offering forms for my current project, and I've been writing (or at least mentally sketching) new stuff about beach combing, canoeing, memory, forest ecology, and bird sounds. But mostly I'd say this summer has been something of a productively negative experience, in the sense that I've been enjoying not being on email, not being on this computer (despite being on it now as I write this). And especially not being glued to my phone (it doesn't get service around here most of the time, which helps; there's wifi, but talk about glacial). I haven't been on twitter as much (I've degenerated into a tweeting parent), and I haven't really missed it.
Speaking of unplugging, over the past year my university transitioned to online course evaluations, which is great in many respects: one no longer has to take up twenty minutes of precious class time late in the semester to hand out the cold forms, read the instructions verbatim, and then awkwardly leave the room as students glance around in panic. No, instead the students just fill out the course evaluations on their own time, from their computers or iPhones I guess, whenever and wherever they want to. This seems like a good idea, from a standpoint of instructional efficiency as well as in the service of saving vast amounts of paper and labor-time scanning the damn things. I've heard some of my colleagues express wariness, though, as it means that the student can decide exactly when to do an evaluation—for instance, in the moments after you've handed back that "D" paper replete with stringent comments. Watch out, prof.
My course evaluations tend to be fairly positive most of the time. Students generally respond well to my admittedly clumsy oscillations between being laid back and then maybe too intense when we're in the thick of discussions or close reading. There are always a couple students in each class who I can tell loathe my style and resent my attitudes. I try to be welcoming and encouraging to a wide range of students, and to be open to various styles of learning and participating...but finally, it's just me, idiosyncratic weird me, doing my thing year after year, class after class, across assorted literary topics, different books, new students, teaching reading, writing, and, okay, even maybe critical thinking. And most of the time, it works out for all of us.
This semester, though, there was one comment from a student that really stung:
"It seemed like he wasn't really into teaching."This was on a course evaluation for my David Foster Wallace seminar, so it especially surprised me, as this is a class I offer entirely because of student interest in the late writer, and the course tends to be pretty self-selecting in terms of student motivation. Our conversations are usually spontaneous and passionate as the students and I grapple and tangle with Wallace's challenging, risky, and sometimes galling writing. This class is a joy to teach, because it is driven by sincere excitement (and at times healthy skepticism) concerning this iconic writer qua celebrity—and I get to facilitate and construct conceptual frameworks around our discussions. At best, it's probably one of those undergraduate courses that flirts with the forum & focus of a graduate seminar—and these sorts of classes can be highlights for students and professors alike.
But I will admit that this past semester I was tired by the time the DFW course commenced. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I taught two 75-minute courses back-to-back, at 3:30pm and at 4:55pm. (So, barely enough time between classes to go to the bathroom and/or get a sip of water from the drinking fountain.) The first class was an upper level critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches"—another course I love, as it is sort of my bread and butter subject matter, and we work our way swiftly from Marx & Freud through Derrida, Barthes, and Kristeva and on to more contemporary thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant (among many others). This particular class was fantastic, with all the students engaged and enthusiastic about the material—no easy feat to pull off, given various authors' notoriously frustrating writing styles and general world-upending bents.
Tuesdays and Thursdays also to tend to get completely jammed with meetings, too, before I teach. So suffice it to say that my student's comment hit me hardest in part because they saw through to something true: by 4:55pm I really wasn't into teaching, at least not after a day chock full of (often pointless or just redundant) meetings, and then my first (exhausting, in a good way) class. I will admit that I rather drifted through some of the DFW classes—even though many of our sessions were still vibrant with excellent conversation, students pushing their understandings of the roles of fiction (and art more broadly), the definition and limits of nonfiction, the author-function in Wallace, etc.
By the end of the semester, yes, I was ready for this break. I'll be recharged and keen to teach my three classes come late August. I'm scheduled to teach a class I've never taught before, an introduction to creative writing (who, me?), as well as a new class tangentially about my series Object Lessons, and my reliably fun course 20th-century American Fiction. It'll be a busy semester, but I'm looking forward to it.
But for now, here I am, up in Michigan. Evaluated, unplugged.
*From the Loyola website, & this is very much in line with how—and why—I teach: Jesuit education is a call to human excellence, to the fullest possible development of all human qualities. This implies a rigor and academic excellence that challenges the student to develop all of his or her talents to the fullest. It is a call to critical thinking and disciplined studies, a call to develop the whole person, head and heart, intellect and feelings.