The Value of What I Teach

“Inch your way through dead dreams to another land.”
—“Box of Rain,” Robert Hunter, lyrics; Phil Lesh, music.

As I write this, during an ice storm, we’ve just finished the second week of classes. A few nights ago, my class “Contemplation and Imagination,” a writing and mindfulness meditation workshop for honors students, met.

That night’s exercise:

  1.  Write down a list of three experiences that you regard as defining moments in your life.
  2. Choose one that you are willing to tell to another student in class.
  3. Find a partner and, in about five minutes, tell your story to her.
  4. Listeners should just listen. Don’t respond, either to approve or express sympathy or question. Just listen, attentively, openly.
  5. Switch roles.

The students formed groups of two, exchanged stories, and then returned to the classroom.
The next instructions:

  1. As accurately as you can, write down your partner’s story.
  2. Write it in the first person, as if it were your story.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott’s task force on higher education has recommended that tuition for students studying engineering, science, health care and technology be frozen for the next three years. This, the task force argues, will provide an incentive for students to choose those fields of study which will prepare them for jobs most likely to need skilled, educated workers in the coming years.

Rising tuition for students drawn to the study of, say, history and other disciplines in the humanities and arts may provide a disincentive for students to pursue academic and artistic interests in those areas.

After the thirteen students in my class finished writing, in the first person, their partners’ stories, I invited them to reflect on the experience. This was only the second time we had met, but the students already seemed comfortable with each other and, typical for honors students, more than willing to contribute to class discussion.

Earlier that evening, we had had a lively, frank discussion of students’ experiences practicing, or not, mindfulness meditation in the week since we last met. Now, however, they hesitated, briefly but noticeably, before responding to my question.

Equally noticeable, when they did begin to speak, was their discomfort in claiming their partners’ stories as their own. It was such an important moment in her life, I didn’t want to get anything wrong, one said. It felt like a violation, said another. If we had been asked to write it in third person, said yet another.

Though I hadn’t anticipated this reaction, the minute the first student spoke I got it. It was obvious, but not simplistic. Call it social or even moral intelligence. A profound respect for each other’s personal possessions: their stories.

I knew where we were heading that night—to a discussion of a few haiku by Basho. (We’re reading Robert Hass’s anthology The Essential Haiku.)

I’m a latecomer to Basho, to haiku.

“Changes in one’s experience may require aspects of the poetry language one had no need for before—the poems of Li Bai, or of John Dryden, for example, encountered at fifty may be just the thing to turn one’s work around the right direction,” writes Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry.

I’m fifty-nine. About five years ago, I established a disciplined mindfulness meditation practice. The practice may have prepared me for Basho (translated by Robert Hass).

Felling a tree
and seeing the cut end—
tonight’s moon.

Awake at night—
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

Who fells the tree? Who sees the moon? Who or what is “awake at night”?

Maybe these are the wrong questions, but they are my questions and they lead me to a further question: what happens when a poet withholds the “I”, the subject, the active and perceiving self from a poem?

The title of the third short chapter of Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners, a chapter we had read for that night: “Who Is Breathing?”

Of course! I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t know.

Inch your way through dead dreams to another land: the instant the students responded to the writing exercise, I woke up. I discovered where I was, where we were. And I shared this discovery with the class—we’re here, exploring our relation to “I”, I said, and, if I read their expressions right, they seemed to wake up, too, recognizing that their discomfort claiming another’s “I” was an opportunity for them to investigate what they mean when they use “I.”

In a draft of its strategic plan for 2013 – 2018, The University of North Carolina, the seventeen-campus system in which I teach, expresses an intention to encourage and support “game-changing research and scholarship that solves the problems of North Carolina—and the world.” Where, according to the draft of the plan, is “game-changing research and scholarship” likely to occur?

In the sciences, in technology, in engineering, in math.

Is there any value in cultivating a practice of inquiring into assumptions that are so widely held that one no longer sees them as assumptions? Who is breathing? Who—or what is I?

What subjects are worthy of inquiry, of an investment of our intellectual and imaginative capital? “Nothing is too small,” writes poet Gerald Stern, “for my sarcasm.”

What don’t you know about what you know? I invite my students interested in writing out of their own experiences to explore that question. Is there any value to the state, the nation, the world in an academic environment in which students are encouraged to ask that question again and again and again, in writing classes and biology and physics and management and history and…

How might Basho answer?

The spring we don’t see—
on the back of a hand mirror

a plum tree in flower.

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  • Steve Kowarsky

    Having been the fortunate recipient of a liberal arts education in the 60s, I am always saddened to see an exclusive emphasis on the material, the triumph of the outer over the inner. But let’s take an even more basic look at it. I was educated in music from the age of 8 and was incredibly fortunate in the course of study I received. Music is the great source, the root of all. Music teaches us everything about the inner and the outer, about the individual and the community. Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from studying and practicing music. The decline of emphasis on the humanities in college education is a deeply sad development. The decline of music education in elementary and secondary schools is an unmitigated human disaster. And perhaps there is something even more basic. If we don’t create ways to foster and amplify within our young people the innate understanding that life itself is infinitely precious, we will lose everything. We will have roads and bridges and tunnels, but no place to go. We will have vast global communication systems, but nothing to say to one another. We will have abundant energy, but nothing worth doing with it.

  • What a wonderful post ~ thanks for this reflection.

  • Marvelous post. And Basho. . . I could read his work all day.

  • Rick, thank you for this powerfully persuasive essay. I can think of nothing more likely to transform students into people who can change the world for the better than your course on “Contemplation and Imagination.” If we truly knew our “I” (or knew that we can’t ever fully know it), could we then designate “enemies” as of lesser value than “I,” and set to work killing them? (rhetorical question)

  • Thank you for saying what needs to be said. Sounds like a wonderful course, your students are very fortunate.