Monthly Archives: July 2009

My eldest son set me a task as we were driving up to Parry Sound this past Saturday: “Dad, let’s find a salamander.”

This task, I knew, would be harder than he realized.  Though my brothers and I regularly found salamanders during the summers we spent on Manitoulin Island and in Blind River, I found the little creatures to be much less common when I went to find them as an adult, even in the same places.  We used to keep in a bucket six or eight specimens at a time of what I now think were Redback Salamanders, but I have not seen more than one of these a summer in recent years, though I am unsure whether this is due to a decline in their population or to a decrease in my patience in looking for them.

In any case, I was non-committal about our chances of finding a salamander during our stay at the lake, and my caution proved justified.  I turned countless rocks and logs, discovering more ant nests than I thought possible and a precious few worms that went to feed our catch and release fishing sessions from the end of the dock.  I also found a toad, a patch of previously unknown blueberry bushes, and several species of beetle, but no salamanders.

On the first day we were there, however, on a whim, I tossed the minnow trap into the water beside the boathouse.  It was unbaited, and I did not expect to catch anything much.  I may even have forgotten about it entirely if it had not begun to rain on our fishing yesterday afternoon.  I caught sight of the trap as we headed for shelter in the boathouse, so I decided to check it as we passed, and there, huddled against the side, was a common mudpuppy.

This was certainly not what my son had meant by a salamander, and certainly not what I had expected to find for him, but it was a very interesting creature nonetheless.  The mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander, having external gills and spending its time almost exclusively in the water.  It also grows quite large, our specimen being something like ten inches in length.  My son was overjoyed, and I was excited as well, since it was the first time I had been able to hold and examine a mudpuppy at such close quarters.

As we were releasing the salamander back into the water, I suddenly remembered a conversation that I once had with Dave Humphrey about seeing.  It occurred to me that I had been looking for something in particular, for something that I expected to find only in a certain way and in a certain place, rather than seeing what was actually there, rather than being watchful for what I might actually encounter.  Rather than allowing myself to simply explore and see what was there, and I had been looking past my surroundings in search of something that may not have been there at all.

Of course, the act of seeing may still involve rolling stones, or tossing out a minnow trap, for that matter.  It just rolls stones differently.  It rolls them, not in order to find something in particular, not in expectation, but in order to see what there might be, in wonder.  It explores rather than searches.  It attends.  It approaches.  It encounters.  It experiences.  It allows itself to be surprised.

The Jewish scriptures tell of a stone that the Israelites erected in order to memorialize a place where God had helped them overcome their enemies.  They called the stone, Ebeneezer, which means, “Thus far God has helped us,”  and I am interested in how this kind of memorial might represent a proper theology’s attempt to articulate the moment of encounter with God.  Let me outline what this might mean.

My theology needs to be, not an idol, not an altar, but an ebeneezer.  It needs to be, not an attempt to show the face of God, not an attempt to provide an adequate sacrifice to God, but a necessarily inadequate gesture which says, like Samuel, “Thus far God has helped us,” or like Jacob, “Here I wrestled with God; here I was broken; here my name was changed.”   It is not an idol to which I might scarifice nor an altar on which such a sacrifice might be made, but a marker that recalls to me the reason for my sacrifice. It does not attempt to make God present, but recalls a moment when God was present, beyond all guarantee, and anticipates the moment when God will be present again, beyond all hope, according to a promise.

Some people have taken me to task recently about what I mean exactly when I talk about reading well and about teaching good reading. Let me clarify.  What I certainly do not mean is that there is some set of essential techniques that most be followed in order to discover a text’s single proper meaning.  What I do mean is that good reading must be characterized by a certain attentiveness, a certain concern, a certain watchfulness, that it comes from an erotic  passion and a desire for the text, and that it comes to be expressed, necessarily though not essentially, through a personal practise of reading.  This practise and its techniques will not be the same from reader to reader, but they will be present in one form or another in every reader.

So, since I feel capable of speaking for nobody else, let me share my own reading practise as an example of what I mean:

First, I read with sticky notes, many sticky notes, an unhealthy number of sticky notes.  In fact, my biggest question about readers of the past has to do with how they managed to cope without sticky notes.  I use them to flag quotations that I want to take, passages that I want to engage, ideas that I want to consider, connections with other texts, possible ideas for my own writing, and anything that might relate to the rather broad set of themes and images that I track through everything that I read.

Second, I read with a commonplace book, a hardbound notebook that I use to keep track of the books that I read.  Each book gets a place on a titlepage that indicates where it can be found within the notebook.  Each book’s own section begins with the date and a full bibliographic notation.  The notes consist mostly of quotations and my own responses to them, with the relevant page numbers in the margin.

Third, I read with a scribble book, a hardbound notebook that I use to write whatever else needs to be written.  This book has no premeditated form.  It includes everything from sketches for the composter I am building for the garden or the blocks that I am making for my kids, to notes from the conversations I am having with a friend over coffee or a coworker in a meeting, to drafts of things that I am writing for this blog or for my other projects, and to just about anything else that needs a place.

Fourth, I read with a whole range of computer files.  Usually these files are about a certain topic, or theme, or image, and I copy quotations or write my own notes into them toward future projects that will probably not, but just may, achieve a polished form at some point in the future.

Fifth, I read with this blog and with letters to friends.  When something strikes my imagination, I open a new post or a new email, and I jot the beginnings of something there that might eventually become something that I send.  I often use these media for the things that I would not otherwise know where to place: an interesting but academically insignificant literary connection, a personal or emotive response to a text, or a random piece of paper that I find in a used book.

Fifth, I read most books at least twice.  On the first reading, I read the whole book, thoroughly, stopping only long enough to mark the things that I may want to read or consider or write later.  On the second reading, I return to the most significant portions of the book, copying out quotations, writing responses, scribbling, thinking, pausing, reflecting.

Sixth, I read books with friends.  This is not usually a formal process where I read a book with a friend for the purpose of sharing it, though I sometimes do this also.  It is most often a process of sharing and recommending and discussing the books that I read as they naturally become relevant in the conversations that I have every day.  It is a process of making my reading a part of my living.

This is how I read.  There is nothing essential about the techniques themselves, only about the attention and the concern that requires such techniques in order to express itself.  My practise of reading is essential only insofar as it is the form that passion for reading has come to take in my life.  Your practise will be different, of course, but I would insist on this much: that you do find for yourself some practise of reading, something that forms your reading, in order for you to read well, and so that you can say also, “This is how I read.”

I have decided to approach my Survey of English Literature II course a little differently this fall.  It will be my fourth time teaching the course, and I have already experimented with it quite heavily the past two times I have taught it, but I have never been satisfied with the degree to which it, or any of my other courses, encouraged students to learn and read and write independently.  I always felt that I was perpetuating the very kinds of educational dynamics that I find so abhorrent.

A short while ago, however, Dave Humphrey posted on modes of lecturing or, perhaps, if you will pardon the neologism, on modes of unlecturing.  He was responding to another post by Kuis von Ahn, and I will not go into the details of the discussion, but I was particularly struck by something he wrote: “Let your own students produce the things they actually want. Let them build examples needed to teach these concepts. Let them critique and collaborate on the work, improving it iteratively. And let this process of collaborative learning and teaching become what happens in the classroom.”

What Dave is describing here is far more than collaborative teaching or experiential learning or any of the other classroom techniques that come in and out of fashion.  It is an approach that puts the onus for learning entirely on the students.  The students are responsible for determining what it is that they need to learn, for how it is that they would learn this best, for how their learning might best be supplemented, and for how this learning should be shared with their peers.  The teacher, far from abdicating the role of teacher, is then forced to teach truly, to enable, facilitate, encourage, model, and provoke the process of learning that the student has chosen.

Dave and I have discussed these ideas before, and we had a chance to discuss them again shortly after he posted. During this conversation, he made several suggestions, and I suddenly realized what it was that I wanted to do with the course this year.  Let me explain.  Then you can all tell me exactly how and why it will cost me my career.

The first day of class will be much the same as any other:  introductions, administrative details, etcetera.  The second class, however, will be held at a local used bookstore, where the students will be asked to buy five books from the time period covered by the course.  These books can be of any length and of any genre and of any variety.  They need meet only a single criterion, one unilaterally enforced by myself: No crap.

The students will then be responsible to read the books, think about them, reflect on them, and then post responses to them on a group blog that I will create for the class.  They will also be asked to comment on each other’s posts.  There will be no assigned format for these posts, but they will have the same criterion as the texts: No crap.

The classes, which may or may not be held in the classroom on any given day, will be primarily constituted by discussion.  The subject of this discussion will begin with the texts that the students are reading and with the posts that they have been writing, but it need need be restricted to these things.  Like any useful discussion, it will probably range in far different directions, though I will try to keep it circulating around questions of literature as much as possible.

I will also participate in this whole process.  I will buy five books, read them, and post on them.  I will comment on other posts.  I will participate in the class discussion.  Though my participation will necessarily be different at times, because of a differential in knowledge and experience of the subject that we will be discussing, and also because my goals will consciously include those of the teacher, I hope to encourage a discussion that permits each student to take the initiative in respect to the books that he or she has chosen, rather than relying on me for direction.

My goal is simple.  It is not to train literary scholars or literary critics.  It is not to produce academics.  If it were, my approach would be worse than useless.  My goal is to provoke my students into reading, into thinking, into writing, into sharing, into conversing.  It want to model for them an approach to literature that is based on passion and desire.  I want them to encounter something, even if it is only one thing, something that they love, something that will cause them to keep picking up the books around them in the hope of finding something else that they will love.

I want to stop teaching literature.  I want to start teaching reading.

Well, since I did promise Dave Humphrey that I would provide him a list of the fifty books that I think are most relevant to our time, and since I have already dodged this request on one occasion, and since he has reminded me of this situation more than once, here, at last, with many reservations, is my list.

Reservation the First: Though I have become more aware of the art of the list since I read Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, this list will have no art whatsoever.  It will be alphabetical by author’s surname, without specific commentary of any kind.

Reservation the Second: I have not yet read very much in my life, and I can obviously draw my list only from those books that I have read, so this list will be hopelessly deficient.

Reservation the Third: I cannot possibly compare literary works with philosophical works, so I have divided the one list of fifty books into two lists of twenty-five, one for literature and one for philosophy.  I know this is arbitrary, but will do it anyway.

Reservation the Forth and Most Serious: I am still completely uncertain of the criteria that one would use to determine which books are relevant to our times or any other times, so I am not sure how useful any list of mine will actually be.

However, for Dave’s sake and for the sake of anyone else who might conceivably care, these are the fifty books that I would say are relevant to our times.

Julian Barnes Flaubert’s Parrot
Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones
Albert Camus The Fall
Albert Camus The Plague
J. M. Coetzee Foe
Leonard Cohen Beautiful Losers
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
Simone de Beavoir The Blood of Others
Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Fydor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment
Fydor Dostoevsky The Idiot
Alaxandre Dumas The Count of Monte Christo
William Faulkner As I Lay Dying
William Golding Pincher Martin
William Golding The Spire
Franz Kafka Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka The Trial
Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Malcolm Lowry Under the Volcano
Dow Mossman The Stones of Summer
Gabriel Garcia Marquez A Hundred Years of Solitude
George Orwell Homage to Catalonia
Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein

Gaston Bachelard The Poetics of Space
Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse
Roland Barthes Mythologies
Jean Baudrillard Simulacra and Simulation
Walter Benjamin The Arcades Project
Maurice Blanchot The Instant of my Death
Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship
Martin Buber I and Thou
Michel de Certeau The Practise of Everyday Life
Guy Debord The Society of the Spectacle
Jacques Derrida The Gift of Death
Jacques Derrida The Politics of Friendship
Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish
Michel Foucault The Archaeology of Knowledge
Rene Girard Violence and the Sacred
George Grant Philosophy in the Mass Age
Martin Heidegger On the Way to Language
Martin Heidegger Poetry, Language, Thought
Ivan Illich Deschooling Society
Ivan Illich Tools for Conviviality
Soren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling
Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity
Jean-Luc Marion God Without Being
Georges Perec The Species of Spaces
Desmond Tutu No Future Without Forgiveness

I try to refrain from sharing sentimental anecdotes about my children since these kinds of stories usually entertain only the parents themselves.  I am about to make an exception to that rule, however, so you may either humour me or find something more interesting to read.

As I was putting my eldest son to bed last night, he asked me, “Dad, can we go in a rocket sometime?”

I told him that not everyone can go up in a rocket, just astronauts.  I also told him that being an astronaut would mean lots of learning and practising and work, but that it would be an exciting job to try.  He was very quiet for a minute, so I asked him, “Would you like to be an astronaut?”

“Yes,” he told me gravely, “and Daddy too, so we can hold hands on the moon.”

I suddenly saw the two of us, hand in hand, standing in the loneliness and the darkness of space, tethered to the barren rock only by the tenuous gravity of the moon, and I could think of no better image to express the love of a father and a son.

I have some fairly large sections of Wild Carrots in the areas of my yard that are still pretending to be a lawn.  Wild Carrot is sometimes also called Queen Anne’s Lace or Bird’s Nest or Bee’s Nest or Devil’s Plague or a variety of other things, and these names are sometimes applied to other similar looking plants as well, but only the species Daucus carota is properly called Wild Carrots.   It is a very common plant in our area and is usually considered a weed because of how prolifically it seeds.

Wild Carrots are edible, though few people actually eat them, perhaps because they look similar to the poisonous Water Hemlock plant, though the roots of true Wild Carrots can easily be identified by their distinctively carrot-like smell.  Wild Carrot roots are tasty when they are young, though they get woody much sooner than their cultivated cousins.  Their leaves can be used exactly like those of cultivated carrots, as a way to add carrot flavour to a broth or a stew.  Their flowers and roots can both be used to make a tea, though there is some evidence that it interferes with the implantation of fertilized eggs in humans, so it should be avoided by women who are pregnant or who would like to become pregnant.  Their flowers also make attractive and edible garnishes for salads and other foods.

Beyond their culinary uses, wild carrots play an important function in the ecosystem, as highly nutritious food for browsing herbivores, as habitat and nourishment for butterfly larvae, and as nectar for bees.  They are also an attractive plant with large delicate white flowers that attract butterflies over a long blooming season, so they make and interesting addition to a garden, even if they are difficult to control.

Now, I have not spent all of this time describing Wild Carrots merely for the sake of information, but also for the sake of making an observation about how urban gardens have come to be cultivated.  Despite the fact that these edible, nutritious, attractive, ecologically significant plants grow easily around us, even without cultivation, we ruthlessly eliminate them whenever possible to make way for less useful and less attractive and less beneficial garden plants.  Though there is some justification for this on the basis that Wild Carrots are technically an exotic species, they are nevertheless a long naturalized species that poses no particular threat to the ecological system, to browsing livestock, or to humans.  The reason for our objection to them, the reason that we classify them as weeds, is far more based on the simple fact that they are common.

Gardening generally, and the urban garden in particular, is dominated by an obsession with the rare and a distaste for the common.  What distinguishes the expert gardener is the cultivation of plants that are rare and difficult to grow and that are uncommonly showy in their bloom or their foliage.  What reveals the poor gardener is the invasion of common local plants into the garden space.  Yet, I would suggest that rarity is not actually a very useful criterion for judging a garden or a gardener, particularly in a world that can less and less afford to spend its resources on the merely frivolous and ornamental, and in a world that must find ways to make the most of its land and its labour.

However, if we are not entirely to replace aesthetics with functionality, we will have to find ways to make the functional beautiful and ways to understand the functional as beautiful.  An essential part of this movement, in my opinion, will be to reassess the value of the common and the rare.  Rather than regarding the common as something to be eradicated in favour of the rare, we will need to regard it as beautiful precisely in its commonality.  I do not mean that we should merely let our gardens be overrun by what happens to sprout there, because this commonality would not be any more functional than rarity.  Neither do I mean that we should leave our gardens altogether without aesthetic form, because this would serve only to eliminate the essential role that the garden plays as a place between the human and the natural.  What I mean is that we need to identify and cultivate and form the very things that grow naturally around us, to recognize the beauty that is found precisely in their commonness.