Space, and not being smart in an e-mail.

Sorry, readers. The end of the month is usually the time when I’m trying to meet all the end of the month deadlines that I should’ve started to work on a month or more ago. I’m swamped. In the meantime, here’s an e-mail I just sent to my Foundations of Educational Thought class. You might find it interesting.

Some context: I often assign an infamous first paper where students must describe the word ‘word’ in one page. The better way to put the prompt is like this.

Describe the following shape: word.

I also send long and weird e-mails to my students, especially here since we only meet once a week. In this e-mail I try and explain the assignment a bit more and my motivations for assigning it.

Hi everybody!
Two things: about your papers and about the false virtue of smartness. 
When you’re writing your papers, don’t try to be clever or profound. That will come. The truly original ways of doing this only come from the most ordinary and obvious work. OBVIOUS. That should be the impression left when your paper is done. Try to leave no questions or guessing or waste any space with anything but the bare descriptive details. When you think of it in a very literal way, I am asking you to describe space. The spacial interaction between these four shapes and the page. Be sure that the paper conveys that spacial object in as analogical, not allegorical, way as possible. 
One reason I am asking you to do this is to show and practice how important and simple and difficult it is to make sense. I think sense-making has been falsely elevated into an ideology of intelligence that contradicts thousands of experiences I’ve had and thousands others I’ve heard or read about. I love my cousin Buddy. He’s my second cousin. He’s about 52 right now in years, but he’s always looked exactly the same to me, since I was a young boy. Buddy is around 14 in terms of physical development and younger in mental development. He’s mentally retarded. I see him at funerals and weddings and that kind of stuff. He always greets me the same way, as though he saw me yesterday. He calls me Sammy, with love. Very few people still call me that, that way. He always reminds me that he is Buddy and we are cousins and he repeats himself about stuff he’s into. But he makes sense. I never wonder what the hell he is talking about. He is clear and obvious all the time. He makes much more sense to me than my uncle, his father, who bores the shit out of me. I always try and get out of talking to my Tio Sonny and go over and hang out with Buddy instead. I also love my friend Esteban, who is also retarded. He’s brighter than Buddy, intellectually, but equally as clear. He’s bilingual, too. He knows everything about key limes. But he talks about them with passion and cold precision. 
I love talking with children and people with childlike minds because they make so much sense. No, they’re not smart. But that’s just the thing! Who cares? They have something I struggle with: clarity. A total ability to express themselves clearly. Children don’t say as much as theorists and academicians but they know how to cut to the issue and lay it bare. I don’t know why we are so obsessed with making people smart. Unlike IBM, I am not interested in creating a smarter planet. Why do mountains and oceans and forests and fungi need to be smart? If that was all it took to live, then why wouldn’t we just create a political arrangement where everyone takes an IQ test and the highest scorers become the rulers. We never elect geniuses, obviously, and for good reason. There is more to life than being smart. And, often, people who may be smart are almost impossible to understand and do not make sense. I don’t know much about being smart myself, and I once thought that that was what I was trying to do and prove, but now I’ve abandoned that and try to work at being clear and trying to make sense. I fail. But I try again. I write and ramble and torture you with these e-mails.
What Buddy and Esteban and Socrates and Cordelia all share is a radical honesty that isn’t afraid to abandon pretenses and give the simple answer. None of them are smart. Socrates denies knowing anything. Cordelia gives a tiny reply that comes off the wrong way. Buddy and Esteban don’t know shame, they don’t know how to feel the way so many people see and treat them. They are gifts to me. Rare gifts. Why? Because their handicap is also a tremendous gift. They are gifted in their disability. They are happy. How simple! Happy. Imagine that! HAPPY. Both of them, even when being yelled at and told to stop eating peanuts and to not interrupt, are tremendously happy. It only makes SENSE to be happy. I suppose that’s why, but I don’t really know. 
Getting a graduate degree is supposedly a process of getting smart. That’s what some people think. I don’t see it that way. The only serious thing I’ve figured out has been how limited the intellect is and how hard it is to use it properly. I feel bad about so many perfectly sensible kids in schools who think they need to be smart. I once thought that you had to be smart to be good at math. Later I realized that it only takes hard work and a very concrete way of seeing things and their relationships. Drawing helps, too. 
This assignment is really a mental drawing exercise. Just draw the word ‘word’ using words: language instead of a pencil. No need to be smart about it. Just make sense and use your tools as best you can. 
I hope this helps.
  • Petro

    word is scribblings on a page. It’s meaningful strokes to the hand that understands. It is nothing to a mind that does not—a mind with no context, a mind without a certain education.

    What’s my grade?

    • srocha

      The scribblings and the strokes are about all that counts here. You’d probably have to take advantage of the re-write option. Ha! (Don’t feel bad, I am known for giving zeros on these papers when people miss the object completely!)

      • Petro

        I would hang up the zero with pride. It would mean that I got my point across and you didn’t. That’s a lot more important.

        • srocha

          Not in this assignment. A zero means that you missed the object and described something other than the word ‘word.’ (Which you did not do.) Imagine the question “How many letters are in the word ‘alphabet’?” Anyone who answers 26 and not 8 would have mistaken the word ‘alphabet’ with the English alphabet. See? I think the difference between the two is very important and we often do not ask for this sort of precision from our student — or from ourselves.

          • Petro

            That’s a poor analogy. No one would answer that question with 26 unless they weren’t listening to you say “the word alphabet” instead of “the alphabet.” The better analogy would be if you asked the question “How many letters are in the alphabet?” Your answer is 11 and theirs is 26.

            That’s not precision though. That’s interpretation. If the point of the exercise is to bend the student’s will to your interpretation, then handing out a zero here would be an acceptable response. If not, then the zero is an indication of not seeing how the object was met in a way that defies your individual constrictions.

            I originally wanted to write that word is scribbles and leave it at that. But it isn’t just that. It’s more. It’s more precise to say that it is more than that than to leave it as a description of it just being scribbles. It’s not more precise nor smarter nor simpler to suggest that it is just scribbles when it OBVIOUSLY is not.

  • srocha

    I didn’t mean to use it that way and your version is, in a way, a better analogy. But I am simply speaking from experience here. There are always a few, and sometimes more than a few, papers that are about what words are and language and rhetoric and whatnot.

    The assignment is a very simple exercise in bracketing and reduction. If the wrong object is bracketed, there is nothing more to be done. The assignment simply was not even begun. In other cases, the execution varies in quality, but increases or decreases depending on how literal and material and spacial the description. It’s a limited exercise and it leaves very little to the imagination, but it is a first step on the way to a much fuller description. I compare it to the fruit bowl, drafting assignment in art school.

    As much as some might insist on the interpretive side of this I want to insist on precisely the other side of interpretation. You know, when you have to transcribe Coltrane, note for note, in music school. I value and encourage interpretation, but here I want them to focus on fidelity to their object.

    By the way: the assignment is only worth 5 points.

    • Petro

      I understand the assignment, which is why I wrote what I wrote in a manner that rejects the nature of the assignment. I started with the reduction, but noted that the reduction was inaccurate and based on context. I could be misunderstanding this though. If I had stopped where I originally intended to stop, would that have been a high-scoring response or not?

      To me, transcribing Coltrane is exactly transcribing just one interpretation, which is what I think this is an exercise in. You are asking that your students transcribe your interpretation of word, which you reduce to a singular impression of what it is rather than its scope or range of impressions. The object word has multiple levels as I expressed in my attempt. You wish that the students focus on only one level—the level that you determined. They are transcribing Sam Rocha’s word, but not the actual object word.

      If you were to draw a diagonal line, and ask for a description of that, then you would be closer to your goal. But word, as it is, is more than just scribbles even when reduced to its basic form because the form has a meaning beyond scribbles for those who have a certain context.

      Let’s use your music analogy. If I played a D, you could say that it is just a noise, or just a break in the silence. With context though, it’s a D. Is it more precise to say that it is a noise. Is that fidelity to the object to ignore that there is a label for that particular sound? How about the source of that sound? Should I ignore that as well?

      • srocha

        I am actually only asking them to describe it exactly as it appears, in the exact same way that a diagonal line appears. There is no my ‘word’ or your ‘word.’ The material object is what it is. When you transcribe Coltrane, if you miss a rest or a note, then you are simply sketching it wrong. Using your revised alphabet analogy, if someone answers 17, they are simply not talking about the alphabet in any way that makes sense within the ordinary language we are using. The basic philosophical idea here is that being precedes meaning. Things, especially material objects, exist as they are and their meaning only is assigned to them after the fact. Stopping with scribbles and strokes would have been absolutely within the spacial (and physical, as you point out by the hand) dimensions of the object. You could describe it from right to left or the other way around or from top to bottom or whatever, so long as the description is focused on the object and reducing it in as literal a way as possible.

        • Petro

          That’s my point I reject the argument of there being a primary state at which meaning has not been assigned to something that is perceptible to man because man perceives everything through meaning, whether that meaning is assigned and explained from an external source or is merely one of his own creation. You are asking students to identify your meaning for word while rejecting their own meaning. That, in itself, is an interesting piece of educational philosophy.

          • srocha

            This is a metaphysical dispute, but I do think there is anything too crazy about telling someone to draw a fruit-bowl and chiding them for drawing something that a child would never recognize as that. But the educational view as you put it is very Rousseauian.

  • arty

    When I took analytic philosophy as an undergraduate, I remember the professor responding to an argument that you couldn’t describe the color ‘red’ or the sensation ‘pain’ without using the words “red” or “pain.” The professor said, that’s “(*&^! I can describe pain”–and he then proceeded to hop up onto a table (and he was like 70) and start this extremely long, blood-curdling scream, interspersed with phrases like “agghhhh, boiling chocolate on my armmmmm!!!, arggghhhh!!!!”
    He got down off the table, looked at all of us very calmly, and said, “how’s that for a description of pain?” Seems so obvious and simple, almost like the explanation a kid would come up with.

    • srocha

      YES! I agree with your professor. My Primer talks about this in details, about the difference between showing and saying and the limits of language to show. Hopefully it will be finished soon and I can share it. I am afraid that the linguistic/discursive turn in philosophy has obscured this simple fact and done a great deal of harm to our ability to make sense.

      • Petro

        One of the blocks here for me is that I was a Linguistics guy, and one who was somewhat in favor of the idea that thought does not occur outside of the context of language—not the context of written language, but the human linguistic ability. This is kind of related to the work of Whorf and Sapir who looked at the way language affects thought. This line of thought is contrary in some ways to the linguistic/discursive approach you decry. In fact, it was killed by the rise of Chomsky. Nevertheless, it looks askance at the idea of limited language since language and thought are intertwined.

  • Matt Popnoe

    Sam, you will always be the philosopher to me…such a unique & grounded way at looking at the world around you! An artist by any other name. I need to take your class.

    • srocha

      My dear Mr. Popnoe (my high school science teacher),

      Your classes were the first place where I began to understand the power of this simple way of seeing and describing things. I went in as a sophomore taking chemistry expecting to be blown away, but instead I learned the need to be very direct and almost mathematical. Then in Bio AP you taught us how to see objects and memorize their names and recall them when we saw them. What a simple, but profound exercise. My lab reports, as terrible as they may have been, also pushed me to do this. So, in a way, I owe it all to you! Thank you!

      Your student,


  • Kristen inDallas

    The lazy nob-head in me wonders if you ever get papers of the variety-

    The word word looks like this:

    • srocha

      Ha! I rule that one out in class. Since it’s an object or a shape, they have to describe it not just post a photo of it. The visual arts have distinct advantages on writers in this regard!