In Present Like A Pro, their book on professional public speaking, Cyndi Maxey and Kevin E. O'Connor suggest that teachers sometimes let their expertise stand in the way of good teaching:
Too often when we present we think of ourselves as experts. We are experts, of course, but we should not believe our own advertising. That wrongheaded approach often befalls other experts; it’s an attitude that says, “The audience should come to me.” We then rely on lecture as the only means of communicating.
In the scientific community, for example, this is widespread, accepted, and unfortunate. Often, we have heard scientists come out of a meeting lauding the expert for her knowledge, but shaking their heads out of boredom or frustration. Experts tend to rely on superior knowledge. Many experts are teachers with superior knowledge. They just aren’t master teachers. (227-228)
In the evening, baby when the sun goes down
Ain't it lonely when you're not around
I'm reading early drafts of short essays written for an English class. They are fine and will grow in revision, so I'm not worried. But they bring to mind the contrast between school essays and the great tradition of the essay as a literary form.
School essays show a teacher that a student was paying attention lately in class and often enough over the years to cough up a credible account of something. The credibility comes from obeying the formal school rules and proving you know the basics about the assigned topic. Nothing new is required. No fresh contact with the world of experience, no new ripples in the ocean of ideas. The product is fabricated in familiar ways out of pre-approved materials. If you succeed, you have gone a step further in earning your journeyman card in whatever trade you will someday pursue.
Essays in the literary tradition invent their own organization on a case-by-case basis. They count as evidence whatever the writer can persuade us counts as evidence. They generally take a closer look at an experience we tend to take for granted, and they see something new there that has implications in the ocean of ideas. They don't have the last word about anything, though, because they aren't pulling rank. They do persuade, however, because their sentences cut through common sense, cliché, and preconception to something fresh. It's almost impossible to write this kind of essay without giving a reader a sense of who you are and how you think and feel, and so these essays are full of personality when they are done, as a side effect of doing the real work of the essay.
The two kinds of essays are profoundly different from each other. Nobody expects a school essay to be read again after the teacher has graded it. A literary essay, however, can remain alive for centuries.
In a key paragraph of a brief Guardian article, Dan Gillmor implies that academics and other kinds of experts should have not an option but a professional obligation to write regularly and clearly for a wider audience than their workplace peers:
In 1973, Pete Seeger seemed to predict the early 21st century, but he was just looking around his society when he wrote: "Americans are drowned in words. . . . We're also drowned in pictures". . .more information than we can use, more than we can make sense of, more than we can protect ourselves against. His brief essay turns immediately to a special case, "the independent graphic artist," a painter, say, who would have provided the wealthy with something to hang on the wall. The figure of this artist serves to sharpen a hopeful contrast.
For Seeger, there was underway a contrasting revival of traditional open-air murals, by which artists great and modest communicate directly with the people who live around them. Not hidden away in the houses of the rich, not guarded by museum and university experts, street murals "fill a need for communication between all people." There is an opportunity for honesty and independence that can break the silence with "ideas which will not be said by our politicians--ideas which need to be explored in public." Something real is at stake, then.
For one thing, by painting in public spaces, artists remind fellow citizens that "we are not 100 percent at the mercy of the media." Communicating on their own, independent from the houses of commerce, freed of those venues' predictable formulations, and more free in general to speak, people will begin to remake the world according to their own needs and values, Seeger said. For him, the people's values are fundamental and far-reaching: "We are going to unite for peace, freedom, jobs for all, and a clean, unpolluted world to share." No narrow focus on commerce there.
As the tiny essay closes, Seeger anticipates a doubting reader's question: "How will this come about? The murals will tell the story. You don't believe me? Keep your eyes open."
That last little bit matters, because he means that the process of social change is exploratory. It involves clarifying basic values together, in public, and it includes affiliation and action. It's a process that has a better chance using public media of wide circulation and participation. The painting on the wall of the millionaire's study won't do it; media broadcast to the passive millions won't do it either. Murals aren't just records of the time or bursts of expression, then. They are part of the process of social change. The same must be true of social media today.
Pete Seeger's small essay is the forward for a 1973 book called Mural Manual, which had chapters on every aspect of producing street art formed the body of the manual. Citizens need comparable skills--perhaps a comparable manual?--for the speaking and writing tools of active citizenship today, for all the reasons which Seeger mentioned when he spoke about art.
Republished from a June 2013 blog entry.
Historian Stephen E. Ambrose may have accidentally put his finger on one of the great flaws of American schools. He took a history class that required each student to do some original research with primary sources, and this insight came to him in the process:
In other words, he was deep into his college education before he understood that a person can help create knowledge, rather than simply receiving it from the pages of the past or the lips of a few experts.
In other words, a smart, talented young person reached adulthood with the most passive understanding of the way meaning-making might be handled by society.
In other words, the schools and colleges are often just fine with that. Take this in, endlessly, is the basic philosophy of our schools. Create nothing. Listen and learn.
The word "art" does not appear in my job description, and not the words "gallery" or "exhibit" either. But somehow I ended up helping put together an art show. This has been quite a journey, and the exhibit that came of it, now open at the big new gallery at Indiana University South Bend, is full of astonishing objects created by sixty of the most interesting artists who have lived and worked in our area. Along the way I've learned how many hundreds of details and arrangements go into a big art exhibit. I have become acquainted with smart, friendly people committed to their work at area archives and museums and art departments. I've spoken with artists who always love having a chance to share their work. And almost accidentally I've had a small, free education in the fine arts. What a great ride this has been.
There were phone calls and letters and emails by the bucket. There were permission forms to be signed and delivery appointments to be made and people we wanted to reach but couldn't. I cannot remember the last time I worked on a project so drenched in details. If you are a big thinker who enjoys delegating the details to others, and someone says to you, "Wanna help with our big art exhibit," I suggest you smile and turn and run far, far away.
But then there is the art itself. If you go to the show at IU South Bend, which is free and open to the public, you'll find your own favorites. In this snowy season I keep thinking about a particular springtime painting of an artist's country cottage, with sunlight washing over the roof and walls. The trees are heavy with white blossoms and leaves just emerging. In the gaps between the branches, the sky is richly blue and the whole scene heralds both a beautiful day and a fresh season unfolding. The world feels full 0f possibility when you stand in front of a painting like that. In the show there are vivid portraits, playful, mind-bending abstractions, and sweeping landscapes. There are big, beautiful tributes to big, beautiful architecture. There are completely unpredictable ceramic pieces that give the impression that artists who work in clay may be the strangest dreamers of us all.
And there are quiet moments of human experience, distilled in a few simple strokes--I'm thinking here of a drawing of one man leaning over and ministering to another man on his sickbed, selflessly tending to a fellow human being who is in peril for his life.
People who love art make big claims for it. One of our country's finest poets, Adrienne Rich, once said, “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” That seems right. I like the extravagance of these works, too. Our area artists thrive on great big challenges, and it's good for my morale to see people tasking themselves with the making of something grand. These artists worked really hard, and they claim the freedom to create whatever they can imagine, which is inspiring all by itself, and along the way these fabulous objects are left behind for us to feel and enjoy. Maybe I'll see you at the show, which continues at IU South Bend until January 25th.
President Lyndon Johnson shared a small theory of how poverty works in his state of the union address in 1964. A key passage:
Later in the spring he sent a message to Congress which elaborated:
What does this poverty mean to those who endure it ?
It means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence. It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them are beyond their grasp.
Worst of all, it means hopelessness for the young.
The young man or woman who grows up without a decent education, in a broken home, in a hostile and squalid environment, in ill health or in the face of racial injustice-that young man or woman is often trapped in a life of poverty.
He does not have the skills demanded by a complex society. He does not know how to acquire those skills. He faces a mounting sense of despair which drains initiative and ambition and energy.
This basic understanding still states the case, I believe.
I'm grateful today for the complex, deeply functioning bond between companies that make such things as snow plows, the employees with the right expertise at those companies, the city and county governments that plan for predictable emergencies, buy necessary equipment, keep a skilled team to maintain and operate the equipment, and my neighbors who believe in their community and share the cost of public services. Well done all around....
The remote thermometer on the north side of the garage now registers 84 degrees colder than the thermometer here in the room where I sit typing.
Pretty nice set of backup singers on this one. What is it, two stripped-to-the-core verses, maybe three chords that a novice could reach for, a melody anyone sing, and a bare emotion of world weariness that sooner or later comes around.
Fourteen inches of snow on the roof of the bird feeder, I'd say. The board that forms the seat of the old-fashioned tree swing is just a few inches above the snow. Most area public facilities are closed tomorrow, when the temperature will drop to zero by sunrise and continue dropping for the rest of the day, perhaps to -14 or lower by the next morning. There is homemade soup in the fridge, and staples enough for the duration. We don't usually see the weather push us around like this, but here goes.
The gallery is filling day by day for the big art show that runs most of January. Nearly sixty works, I think. One that I wish we could have in the show I saw in the chapel of a men's dormitory not far from here. The stations of the cross, the narrative in most Catholic churches set out in numbered images around the sides of the sanctuary, tracing the path of Christ from trial to crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. In one frame in the dormitory chapel, Simon leaned over to begin taking the weight of the cross from a struggling Christ, while a broad-shouldered soldier looked on impassively. Nothing else in the scene. The simple, quiet contrast was remarkable, communicating instantaneously the two paths in life: service informed by empathy, or judgment at arm's length simplified by discipline and authority.
Digging the a5.gg in-browser notepad that uses the browser's memory, loads in a snap, and is happy to live in the toolbar below the address box if you drag it there just once. Nicely done, Jason Cooper (@jasecoop).
Conversation in the check-out aisle, two white-haired women each with a cart and a modest number of items. Chatting about nothing, then about Downton Abbey, then about the beloved old movies on the cable. "My husband taped those," one said. "My husband taped them too," the other said. "How long were you married?" "Fifty-six years. And you?" "Fifty-nine. When did you lose your husband?" "Three years ago. And you?" "Three weeks ago." "Oh, my dear," she said, gently placing a hand on the other woman's arm. Knowing enough about what another person might have endured, a deepening...
Having no voice, or no voice that extends very far beyond the hedges at the boundaries of our private lives. That is the topic. But the question is whether we start there or end up there--whether through the shaping forces of the society or our own choices or a combination of the two. In a postscript to an old posting, I summarized a friend's view that people end up there, but until he said so I had been thinking that our position as citizens starts out with not much of a say beyond the private life.
Maybe there is some truth to both positions--starting there, ending up there--as well as both mechanisms--limits shaped by society, shaped by our own choices.
Maybe there is another element to consider. I remember the mothers of young people in South America who had been kidnapped and killed by government death squads--"disappeared" was the term. They lived private lives until they couldn't take it any longer, and they began to stand in a public square and ask where their children were. They formed up into groups, so that was political, and they gathered in public places, and that was also political--actions they claimed for themselves. But a society with death squads is all about silencing voices like theirs, and yet day after day they could gather. Why is that? Jean Franco, a scholar who studied these events, suggests that the position of being someone's mother entitles a person to care about her child, and this entitlement is so basic and so deeply ingrained that only the most grotesque of governments could refuse it. Ask the dictator: can a mother ask after her child? The answer seemed to be yes.
So there is some potential for public speech in our positions as family members, parents, siblings, children, or as friends. The web of social life was not so bastardized as to break down those bonds or stifle the expectation of caring and seeking answers about a loved one. To me that means that civil society has woven into it some degree of public right to speak, even though the powerful do their best to ignore and silence on many levels. So if you are human, we feel in our guts somewhere that you are entitled to speak about certain things. If a society forgets that gut-level right, that's a shame, but it seems to be there a pretty far distance down the road into dictatorship. Not all the way down that road, though.
We're not guaranteed the chance to ask a question of El Presidente at a press conference, say. But our common humanity grants us something of a place to speak from. As we see in many an episode from Nazi history, a brutal and passionate enough dictatorship will slash away at those who try to assert the right. But the less extreme cases suggest that speaking and asking go with being human in even a damaged society. People have to claim the rights or they will drift away.