What becomes an English teacher?

Diamond Sharp -- Professional Learning

As I have been working with pre-service teachers at the Faculty of Education at Monash University, I have had many occasions to think about how one becomes an English teacher — and keeps on becoming throughout a career. With all the talk about ‘professional standards’, measurable skills, and accountability on key performance indicators, it is easy to lose sight of the deeply personal process of making a commitment to a teaching career.

‘Becoming’ has a neat double meaning that is pertinent to these thoughts. There is the process of becoming; this implies an emergence or an ongoingness, in which the one who becomes is also an active collaborator in this coming into being. There is a curious combination of agency and shaping of what was nonetheless incipient.

There is the other meaning of ‘becoming’, which means fitting, apt, correct, suitable, appropriate and, hence, attractive or flattering.

Plenty of commentators, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists…

View original post 1,956 more words

On dressage and teaching.

During my adolescence I was a horse enthusiast. I read, thought, daydreamed, imagined and played at being with horses and learning about horses. Naturally, I wanted to ride horses, and, eventually, have a horse of my own. Both of these wishes came true, thanks to my parents, who first sent me to riding lessons provided by Miss Tunbridge, and then stumped up the cash for a near-retirement galloway (14 – 15 hands) that an American friend who was moving back overseas had to sell. Before she returned to the U.S. this friend also introduced me to the world of riding that extended beyond the offerings of Miss Tunbridge’s classes. My friend competed in gymkhanas and one day events and her bedroom was festooned with ribbons and sashes from her victories. Sometimes I would go with her to these all-day affairs that began the day before with washing and preparing the horse, and went from pre-dawn dark to dusk the following day. Through her I was introduced to dressage.

Dressage has a certain beauty to it. The horse and rider work together to perform a routine in which increasingly difficult moves are completed with the maximum elegance and finesse. I learnt that the routine was set out beforehand and judges assessed each horse and rider on how closely they approximated a ‘perfect’ rendering of this sequence of moves. Many of the manoeuvres originated from warfare in which horses were required to act with dexterity and grace and sometimes with deadly precision on the battlefield. But in the dressage ring, these moves had become abstracted from these muddy and bloody origins to become a performed dictionary of all the movements a horse and rider can do in a ring. It is perhaps as close as horse riding gets to ballet.

I liked dressage – to a point. I would practice the moves on my friend’s horse in her home’s training area. I learnt a lot about riding by submitting to the discipline of dressage. She would teach me the moves and then I would do them over and over and over again. For hours. It was like practising a difficult bar in music.

Sometimes I would join my friend at her pony club (I did not belong). On these days, my friend would kindly loan me her horse so that I could compete in some events and have the experience of being part of that world.

But there was something about dressage that, over the years since, has come to emblematise for me a certain approach to other endeavours quite unrelated to equestrian sports. It is a world that proposes perfection as something to strive for and something that is pre-determined and defined in advance, existing in the abstract. The job of the horse and rider is to match this glinting and distant vision of a perfect performance with their own iteration of the routine. I never rode long or seriously enough to go beyond my initial experiences, (university and a move to more urban climes intervened). On the whole, I preferred cross-country and trail riding. But during those gymkhanas and one day events, I would linger, propped against the wood or steel of a fence or gate, and watch with curiosity as the senior riders competed in their elaborate routines. That there was skill and discipline and grace was unarguable. And yet I also saw something else. It was the idea of perfection, the pre-determined moves and routines, the judges with their score sheets, the stylised moves of the horse, the way in which actions once integrated into a purpose and context had been recontextualised in the show ring, performed for the sake of being judged. And so, when I watched the senior riders I saw what it takes to formalise a field into a discipline that can be worked up into a high degree of skill, taught, and passed on; but I also saw the potential tyranny of such an approach.

This double sidedness of dressage in my youth I have seen again in recent debates about teaching, particularly ‘quality teaching’. Dressage is fine — as dressage. But there are other ways to ride, situations in which to apply the criteria and judgements of the scoring sheet would be wrong and beside the point.

Similarly, when we talk, as we seem to be doing so much nowadays, about ‘quality teaching’, there is a sense that some of us have a score card, and a bunch of routines they would like to see performed. Such a vision of teaching breaks it up into a series of discrete, highly specialised ‘moves’ that can be abstracted from their origins or any messy situation in which they might be used for any real purpose. Hence we have efforts to mandate the same basic lesson plan, with the same opening moves, development moves, and concluding moves across entire schools. Hence, we have this idea that teaching is ‘perfectible’ and that if teachers only learned to finesse their routines enough, student learning would suddenly take a great leap forward. And hence, we have the logical extension of this outlook, in scripted lessons, and ‘teacher-proof’ curriculum that positions teachers as ciphers for knowledge and pedagogy developed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, actual classrooms full of actual kids present a densely textured, constantly emerging situation to which a teacher must respond with empathy, flexibility, imagination, inventiveness, tact and will. Nothing conjures the phrase, ‘heaving with humanity’ quite like a Year 8 class on a Friday afternoon.

My feeling is that these actualities are not amenable to the logic of ‘perfection’ that holds (or, to my inexperienced eyes, seemed to hold) in a white sandy equestrian arena. Teaching is riding in rugged terrain, with unpredictable weather, tight rations, and, for many, antique equipment. Doing dressage may help you learn the moves, it may help you develop skills and some insight into techniques you might deploy in certain situations. Dressage can be good. It has its beauty and its art. But knowing how to use which move when in authentic situations? Putting it all together? Doing what the moment demands? That is where professional judgement kicks in – where the accrued knowledge and insight of past teaching and learning experiences becomes a repertoire, a deepened practice. And, alas, sometimes professional judgement commits an error. But would an off-the-rack lesson plan be any better?

How else, beyond the language of performance and standards, might we talk about the development of teachers’ expertise? Where is the role of reflection and reflexive inquiry into practice? What part do imagination and creativity play? Is teaching just doing a standardised series of things defined by the role – or does specialised knowledge contribute something crucial? How do we mediate between routines and standards on the one hand, and the need for teachers to have enough professional autonomy to be inventive and responsive to the needs of their particular students on the other?

These are some of the questions I have been prompted to ask and explore in my initial foray into teacher education. My mentors have done a good job of prompting and prodding me, but like all really rich questions, things now seem even more complicated than they did before. Teachers work in a policy environment that, increasingly, seems to be using the logic of the dressage score sheet. But, as any of us knows, the irreducible complexity and realness of classrooms, students, teachers, and schools, offer a ready resistance to reductive scripts for teaching practice. They exceed all boundaries laid down in neat little routines. For this very reason they also, potentially, offer fertile ground for other accounts of teaching, other ways of shaping the role and our imagination of it.

Reflections on Reading Group Readings January 2015 – Kracauer and Benjamin

Reflections on Reading Group Readings January 2015 – Kracauer and Benjamin

The two readings for the Summer meeting of the Monash Literacy and Teaching Reading Group (a descriptive rather than ‘official’ title) were from Germany in 1930. One was an excerpt from Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany. The other was an essay from Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”. They made an odd pair and, as I am not an expert on Marxist theory or dialectical materialism, they were at times dense. These reflections treat the two articles as provocations or openings for considering the place of ‘cultural producers’ such as writers and teachers.

Kracauer:

The excerpt we looked at from Kracauer was “A short break for ventilation” which documented the author’s visits to newly modernised factories and workplaces in Weimar Germany. Kracauer treats his visits as excursions into what the modern workplace extols as ‘efficiency’ – a god that we still worship. The application of scientific rigour to human resources and work practices has, since the advent of industrialisation, had two contradictory effects: one has been to dehumanise workers into units of production who can be rationalised to create just the right kind of output in a series of actions in a tightly designed and monitored workflow. The other effect has been to look at modern work as a locus of meaning and identity for the individual worker. However, as the first effect suggests, what happens when we emphasise function, efficiency and predictability over individual personality, is that it is very difficult for a worker to see their work as a source of meaning. This was very evident from the beginning in the piecework of the factory worker. Mass production created a huge rise in living standards for many as goods previously made by artisans (at considerable expense) were now churned our cheaply from factories. However, the effect was the worker who once learned an intricate trade or craft was transformed into a single, repetitive unit in a production line.

Kracauer’s essay seems particularly interested in the category of worker who sits between the labourer on the factory floor and the management – the legions of clerical workers and minor functionaries. He devotes some attention to describing the work patterns of young women who come to work after a short stint at secretarial school:

“A number of girls are evenly distributed about the room at Powers machines, punching cards and writing. … I ask the office manager about the machine-girls’ work routine.

‘The girls,’ he replies, ‘punch for only six hours and during the remaining two hours are employed as office clerks. In this way we avoid overtaxing them. All this takes place in a predetermined cycle, so that each employee encounters all tasks. For hygienic reasons, moreover, from time to time we slip in short breaks for ventilation.’

What a scheme – even ventilation outlets are not forgotten.”

Kracauer’s essay suggests that such human touches as “short breaks” are only added insofar as they assist with the mechanics of smooth production. The individuality of each girl is immaterial to the process, and the general aesthetic ugliness of the environment and the ideas it embodies is summed up by the observation, “many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through études at home on the pianoforte.” In other words, they need to be educated and genteel just enough to enter into this workplace and perform their function well – but not so much that a creativity or critical intellect is nurtured that is in excess of requirements.

This is the other face of standardised work and it points up a paradox. On the one hand, standards imply a certain level of proficiency and learning is required to meet the criteria for performance of a work role. This, when applied to domains of work such as teaching, nursing, accountancy, financial planning, occupational therapy, clinical psychology, and so on, is supposed to have the effect of reassuring the public that members of this profession have reached standards and can be trusted to do their job and serve their clients well. The idea is that this also ‘weeds out’ the shonky operators and hence raises the esteem in which that professional is held by the community. However, in applying standards, the unintended effect can be akin to the world described by Kracauer at the birth of the modern clerical workplace – not just ‘standards’ but ‘standardisation’, wherein the professional judgement of the worker is replaced by a standardised routine which bypasses individual knowledge and creativity and replaces it with compliance. In other words, this worker, too, like the labourer on the factory floor before her, becomes a unit in a process that makes a standard, mass-produced product. By the logic of this world, the people involved in this process become themselves, standardised, mass-produced products. This paradox is summed up in a little verse inserted into Kracauer’s essay:

And after all it’s just the same

If it’s you or if it’s me.

Kracauer goes on to analyse this effect of the modern white-collar workplace being a domain of rationalisation and work-function. The effort poured into calibrating and quantifying the exact content of each task in the process has the effect of making it ‘individual-proof’:

“Thanks to the intellectual labour invested in the equipment, its handmaidens are spared the possession of knowledge; if attendance at commercial college were not compulsory, they would need to know nothing at all. The mysteries of the firm too are a closed book to them, since they deal only with figures.”

The Salaried Masses goes to the heart of one of the tensions of modernity – the same forces that revolutionised society out of stable, feudal relations into a rapidly changing, socially mobile world in which commercial goods were more freely accessible, is the same world that wrenches meaning from work and slots people into narrow, alienated, standardised roles in which mere compliance to routine and standardised processes is required. We are still living with the ongoing permutations and complexities of that tension – not least in the profession of teaching.

Benjamin:

The place of artists, intellectuals and other ‘cultural producers’ in modernity is examined by Benjamin. Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer” is, if I read it right, an attempt to address a major problem for left-wing intellectuals of his place and time: if you are an intellectual, you are, by definition, bourgeois. But, if you are left-wing, you are sympathetic to the interests and cause of the proletariat, which means you are against the bourgeois. At this point, I am scrabbling around in my memory of courses in Political Theory and Theory of Revolutions that I took back in the early 1990s. If memory serves me right, one of the key insights I derived from those courses is that the bourgeois classes are actually responsible for as much social change and upheaval as they are for conservatism and oppression of the proletariat. Perhaps this is the dilemma that Benjamin addresses – that the class that is identified as the ‘owners of the means of production’ is the same class that gives rise to new social forms. On one side, the burghers of the city, and on the other the revolutionary writers, and both are from the same economic class.

Benjamin charges the left-wing intellectual with a special but obscure task: “His mission is not to report but to struggle; not to play the spectator but to intervene actively.” This bears a family resemblance to the ideal of the French existentialist intellectuals of engagé. However, the latter idea, or the methods used by writers such as Carolyn Steedman in Landscape for a Good Woman, are much more appealing to me than Benjamin’s formulation that a left-wing writer must show “solidarity” with the “proletariat”. What does this really entail? Benjamin argues that this consists of a kind of collectivisation of intellectual production, a process that changes cultural production from something that merely reiterates bourgeois values to an “apparatus” that is adapted to “the purposes of the proletarian revolution.”

Perhaps because of my no doubt bourgeois distaste for roping any intellectual or artistic endeavour to an ideological program imposed from the outside, not to mention what actually happened to intellectuals and artists in Stalin’s Russia, I cannot enthuse about this aspect of Benjamin’s article. I may have misunderstood it, but his program for artistic revolutionary work sounds very similar in its control and rationalisation of action to function, to the streamlined functionalism of the Weimar era workplace documented by Kracauer. Why have cultivated individuals when all you need are Socialist Realist artists fulfilling work orders like colour-by-numbers hacks?

There are some other ideas here: the notion of how new technologies transform cultural production and bring in the reader as collaborator, breaking down the distinction between an ‘elite’ cultural producer and a deskilled consumer. This was a thread in Benjamin’s essay that seemed positively prescient for what modern print production, telecommunications, media and ICTs have done for collaborative cultural practice and decentred notions of intellectual and literary value.

As to how it relates to teaching literature … Perhaps we can take from these two articles an illumination of our odd and awkward position as English teachers, as we are a form of cultural producer and/or intellectual. We are charged with multiple and often contradictory tasks that promote both cultural conservatism and social change. We teach ‘standard Australian English’ and yet also engage with new, collaborative and digital tools for reading and writing. We teach ‘classic’ literature, and yet we also want students to create new types of texts. We want to be professionals and recognised as such by our communities, and yet we may be wary of ‘standards’ becoming ‘standardisation’. Does who we are and what kinds of intellectual and social engagement we represent to our students matter – or does it not matter, as long as we implement the mandated strategies and ‘teach to the test’? Is Kracauer’s verse true: “And after all it’s just the same/If it’s you or if it’s me”?

Under the various pressures of high-stakes testing and exams, it is easy to feel a little like one of those girls at the punch-card machines. And yet, teacher’s work is qualitatively different, not the least being we do not have to toil at dehumanising, clattering machines and the necessity for some professional judgement and knowledge is recognised. And yet … my prickly reaction to Benjamin’s essay is in part a feeling that programmatic interventions such as those envisioned by thinkers like him have to guard against dismantling the very qualities that make people happily invest identity in their work – such as freedom to make professional judgements and to be recognised as expert interpreters of their world and how to respond to it.

2014 Reading Highlights – Memoir and YA

2014 Reading Highlights – Memoir and YA

At our house, we are all bunkered down inside, hiding from yet another Melbourne heatwave … and I am taking the opportunity to catch up on a bit of book blogging.

Reading took me in many directions during 2014. Today’s blog is about a moving memoir about reading and the work of a YA author, Rainbow Rowell.


end of your life book club

Will Schwalbe (2012). The End of Your Life Book Club.

Schwalbe lives in New York and works in publishing. This memoir is about many ideas, but it starts from the author’s love of two things – reading and books, and his mother. Will Schwalbe’s mother is undergoing treatment for cancer and Schwalbe takes to sitting with her through the long hours of waiting and treatment at the clinic. Over their time together they take the opportunity to talk about the books they have read, are reading, and are planning to read. Hence, over the course of Mary Anne Schwalbe’s struggle with illness, they create an informal ‘book club’ of two. And, like any good book club, talking about the books ends up being the prompt for their talking about life.

By choosing to focus on a distinct span of time and event, but flesh it out through the books he and his mother read, Schwalbe re-creates for his readers how reading deeply and well, and sharing it with others, in turn deepens and expands our own horizon of experience. As a portrayal of a son’s grief and joy at his mother’s life, and their shared devotion to the power of the written word, The End of Your Life Book Club uses the pair’s reading program to ponder all the big questions of human existence: love and fate; choices and decisions; the ‘roads not taken’; moral purpose in career; family; death. Reading Schwalbe’s memoir also has the effect of sending the reader back to their shelves to revisit old friends, or off to the bookshop to purchase a few of the titles the two of them discuss with such tantalising grace. So many times, while reading this, I found myself re-reading passages for their insight into how reading and thinking about books helps us navigate those other ‘passages’ in our lives. Handily, Schwalbe finishes the volume with a reading list of all the books he and his mother talk about.

Eleanor and Park

Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor and Park. (2013).

Switching between one character’s point of view and another can be risky business in fiction writing, and it does not always work. However, Rowell’s Eleanor and Park pulls this device off perfectly. A romance between an overweight, red-haired misfit girl and a half-Korean boy in a white-bread town sounds like it could be mawkish, lopsided, or just implausible. But it is magic.

Eleanor is a new girl in a small suburban town. She comes from a deeply dysfunctional and poor family. Her mother has remarried and the new step-dad is a no-hoper, abusive demon. She has no friends at her new school, and, on the dreaded bus ride to and from school, must sit in the only available space – next to a remote, Eurasian boy who, initially, shows no signs of wanting to know her. Park, it turns out, has more genuine guts than his father gives him credit for and eventually braves the high-school threat of social annihilation to connect with this strange new girl. He shares his love of indie music and graphic novels and the two of them start their own world apart; however, despite her joy in Park’s company, Eleanor’s bruised self-esteem means she finds it hard to believe in the viability of their love. I thought this was an intelligently written YA novel about first love, social exclusion and family hurt. I really liked the way Rowell made the point of Eleanor and Park’s allegiance to each other being an allegiance to themselves and their difference; together, they resist forces that would diminish them to create the ‘universe of two’ that is part of the power of first love.

fangirl book cover

Rainbow Rowell Fangirl. (2013).

Identical twins Cather and Wren (say both the names aloud quickly and you’ll get it) head off to college in Nebraska. Wren is the more extraverted of the two, has no interest in rooming with her quieter twin Cath, and is quick to dive into all the social scene that college has to offer. Cath, by contrast, hides out in her dorm room, subsisting on peanut butter and protein bars because she is too intimidated by the task of finding the dining hall. She has taken on a more senior class in fiction writing that she is dead keen on doing well in, but is utterly overwhelmed by the seeming sophistication of her older classmates. And, she is desperately trying to complete her fanfic opus, Carry On, Simon, before the eighth and final volume of the canon series comes out later that autumn.

Rowell’s Fangirl was pressed upon me by a veteran reader friend who works as a Teacher Librarian and has been round the block plenty of times when it comes to YA fiction. When she tells me a YA novel really stands out from the pack in terms of quality, I take notice. She raved about Fangirl, and with good reason.

Cath is plagued with crippling, you-would-not-believe-it anxiety. The experience of being cut loose by her more outgoing twin, having to room with a senior called Reagan who is all sharp edges, and dealing with her worries about her bi-polar single dad, who has been left behind in their Nebraska hometown of Omaha, just about capsizes Cath in her first semester. She is also haunted by the fact that her and Wren’s mother abandoned them when they were in third grade, and that Cath has never seen her since. What keeps her hanging on is her immersion in the fan fiction world developed from a fictive urban fantasy series about a character called Simon Snow.

For the purposes of her novel, Rowell has invented an inter-text of a fantasy series about Snow, a teen attending wizard school, not unlike Harry Potter at Hogwarts. Rowell has added a dash of other well-known fixtures of YA fantasy, as Snow has a roommate nemesis Baz, who is a vampire. Cath’s fanfic is ‘slash’, meaning her narrative has re-created the fictional universe of the original text, but she has made Simon and Baz have a swoony gay romance. Cath’s fanfic is wildly successful, and she is ‘huge’ in the online Simon Snow fanfic world, with tens of thousands of ‘hits’ on her daily instalments. There is even a T-shirt for her fans that says, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On, Simon.’ The irony is, that she is unable to translate this online belonging and confidence to anything resembling it in her offline, ‘real’ life.

Meanwhile, Reagan’s ex-boyfriend Levi, who studies agricultural science with electives in literature, is hanging around the dorm. It is clear to the reader, way before it dawns on Cath, that Levi has more than a passing interest in Cath. Levi’s struggle is that while he can read short chunks of text, he has trouble following longer reading assignments. In a moving sequence, Cath reads to him from her fanfic, then reads S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to him all night long, in preparation for an upcoming pop quiz he needs to do well in. Levi is gentlemanly and old-fashioned, and falls in love with Cath’s love of the written word. Their romance is partly about the power of stories to bridge gaps in understanding between people.

Fangirl is cleverly constructed, as the narrative moves between passages of the fictive Simon Snow canon, Cath’s additions to her Simon Snow slash fanfic, and the narrative of her struggles to overcome her anxiety, find her place in the world of college, and navigate her first love. The novel also treats the issues of family dysfunction and mental illness deftly, as well as exploring Cath’s emergence from fanfic into grappling with her most difficult personal experiences in fiction she develops from scratch.

Reading Highlights from 2014: Fiction

Reading Highlights from 2014: Fiction

Meg Wolitzer The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer. The Interestings. (2013).

Wolitzer’s novel focuses on a circle of friends who meet during their teens at a summer camp for artistically gifted youth called Spirit in the Woods. Told mainly from the point of view of Julie Jacobsen, the narrative follows this close-knit and variously talented group from the age of fifteen through to their mid-fifties. The narrative starts against the backdrop of Nixon’s resignation (1974) as the teens gather nightly in the wooden tepee sleep-out of the charismatic Wolf siblings, Ash and Goodman, who come from a cultured, privileged background that assures them a sense of belonging at a camp such as this. The group declare themselves ‘the Interestings’ for the level of intensity, complexity and talent that they possess singly and as a group. Intended perhaps as a satire on adolescent hopefulness and egotism, The Interestings nonetheless suggests that at least one member of the group, Ethan Figman, a plain-looking boy of unremarkable background, is in fact insanely, incandescently talented. Already, at fifteen, he is filling notebooks with the comic strip of his creation, a world called Figland that converts the banal horrors of his bleak suburban upbringing into mordant tales. Julie, renamed Jules by her hip camp friends, is invited by Ethan to a private showing of his animated versions of Figland and has a sudden insight: despite his plainness, here was real talent, “He was a genius … His cartoon was mesmerizing …”

Jules, also from an unremarkable background, with a home back in New Jersey, is attending Spirit in the Woods on a scholarship. Her story makes a parallel to Ethan’s as each starts from a similar back-story, only to experience very different outcomes. While Ethan’s work goes on to be wildly successful, both commercially and artistically, growing to become a Matt Groening style Simpsons-esque empire, Jules’s early years as a budding comic actor lead nowhere. Eventually conceding that a little talent that shines its small light among one’s peers is not enough to light up anything beyond that circle, Jules becomes a clinical social worker who runs a modest practice. The remainder of the narrative explores how Jules’s feelings of intense camaraderie and loyalty towards her more successful friends, are rendered more complex and ambiguous by disappointment and poisonous social comparison.

As The Interestings ploughs through the early adulthood, adulthood, and middle years of this group, Wolitzer uses the various backgrounds and personalities of each member to explore questions of success and envy, privilege and chance, and the saving role of friendship as each deals with the flux of fortune. In addition to Jules and Ethan, there are the Wolf siblings, the diabolical Goodman and the likeable Ash, Cathy, a dancer whose artistic career seems doomed from the beginning by her statuesque build, and Jonah, the under-parented son of a Joan Baez type folk singer. Much of Jules’s story is taken up with her envy and frustration at being so proximate, through Ethan, and Ash, to phenomenal financial and artistic success, while she is forced, as are most of us, to make other, more imperfect choices.

The Interestings explores similar territory to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, as, by considering talent and its fate, Wolitzer locates the individual story in a deeply textured social and economic milieu. This is brought into sharp focus when Jules’s best friend, Ash Wolf, develops a promising career as a New York theatre director, and Wolitzer gives Jules a painful epiphany:

“…it had never just been about talent; it had also always been about money. Ethan was brilliant at what he did, and he might well have made it even if Ash’s father hadn’t encouraged and advised him, but it really helped that Ethan had grown up in a sophisticated city … Ash was talented, but not all that talented. This was the thing that no one had said, not once. But of course it was fortunate that Ash didn’t have to worry about money while trying to think about art. […] ‘I love her and she’s my best friend and she’s very dedicated, and she does the reading and puts in the time, and she’s legitimately interested in the feminist aspect. But isn’t it true that there are a lot of other people who are talented at the same exact level, and they’re all slaving away? She’s got some good ideas. But is she great at directing? Is she the theatrical equivalent of Ethan? No! Oh, God will strike me dead right now.’”

Wolitzer shows how the novel form itself is uniquely well-suited to explore the central dynamism of human life in modernity – how we struggle to make good on our given resources and talents; how relationships form and shape us; how we aim to make something of our lives, but always do so within the opportunities and limits of our circumstances and society. There is the myth, especially in America, but also in every culture touched by the American narrative, that the individual carves out their life from the raw material of circumstance and that the virtuous individual will triumph over odds. Wolitzer shows, through the fortunes and struggles of her characters, that it is never that straightforward, even for those born to advantage and even those whose lives seem, on the surface, to encompass every kind of success.

Ultimately, The Interestings is a meditation on the mystery of talent – whether or not it exists, and the many factors that play into its being expressed or not, “Talent could go in so many directions, depending on the forces that were applied to it, and depending on economics and disposition, and on the most daunting and most determining force of all, luck.” The author chooses to portray a small coterie of New York friends who attempt artistic careers, or make deliberate choices not to, using their story to prompt our thinking about the interaction of self and circumstance, and the relationship between the narrow range of personal experience, and the wide angle lens of social history. If anything, the novel invites speculation into just how useful the contemporary obsession with talent and fame and success really is, and what happens to how we experience our lives if we only value what of them reaps wealth and publicised rewards. By developing the narrative through the parallel lives of these friends, Wolitzer also shows how our long-standing relationships help us make sense of the passing of time. Through the story of Jules and her friends, I felt like I was satisfyingly involved in some of life’s great questions.

KnausgaardBoyhoodIsland

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Boyhood Island. (English translation: 2014).

“… event after event is dispersed in the air above the little meadow of one’s own history, only to fall between the blades of grass and vanish …”

This is the third instalment of the English translation (from the Norwegian) of Knausgaard’s epic experiment in fictionalised autobiography My Struggle. In this volume, ‘Karl Ove’ relives his primary school years living with his father, mother and older brother on the island of Tromøya. Setting up in a new house in a new estate, Knausgaard’s family are part of a post-war generation who hope to be part of a new, better-educated, more socially just Norway. The class heterogeneity, optimism, and easy neighbourly intermingling of different kinds of families that Knausgaard portrays, held together by common schooling and community sporting clubs, was extremely nostalgic for me, having grown up, on the other side of the world, in a very similar community on the outer suburban fringe of 1970s Melbourne. This was a time in Australia, too, where there was a popular hope that socialised health care, free, accessible, high-quality education for all, worker protections, and a welfare safety net were going to usher in a golden era of social as well as material prosperity. Such were the days.

Of the three My Struggle volumes I have read thus far, this had the most traditional, straightforward narrative structure. Knausgaard portrays his struggles for self-acceptance as well as inclusion with his peers. The strained and ominous atmosphere that permeates his adolescent and early-adulthood memories of his father in Volume 1: A Death in the Family, is explained further in this volume. A primary-school pedagogue by trade, Knausgaard’s father is shown, in a cruel irony, to have no insight into how to relate to his own sons. ‘Control Freak’ does not even begin to cover the tyrannical perfectionism and glowering threat posed by this man. However, a young Knausgaard does find some relief elsewhere during unsupervised hours roaming the beaches, docks and forests that surround his home, sometimes getting into peril during the explorations and adventures he undertakes with his boyhood friends. Soccer and music, and, a little later, reading, also offer escape hatches from the unbearably oppressive atmosphere at home.

Of the three volumes translated thus far, this was the least striking, stylistically, perhaps because the story arc and the attention given to portraying childhood within a suburban-fringe or small-town setting are stock-in-trade for autobiographical novelists. However, the quality of Knausgaard’s writing, and the searching, self-critical way in which he narrates his novel-memoir, lifts this work above the usual Bildungsroman.

Knausgaard recounts experiences that are so specific and weird that they simply cannot be made up and they certainly disrupt any containment by a simple bucolic narrative. Discovering an undeclared tip and scouring it for disposed of pornography magazines, and having pooing competitions with his friend off the sides of fallen trees certainly fit this bill, as does the painfully meticulous attention given to the many ways in which the child Knausgaard was overly keen to please adult authority figures. The clarity and attention to detail, the felt heft and haptic specificity of Knausgaard’s writing, work like a magic portal to another time. I am looking forward to Volume 4 of this incredible project.

olive-kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kitteridge.(2008).

Olive Kitteridge is a quiet, yet sharply observed series of stories that accumulate into a novel-in-episodes.  Set in the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine, Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel revolves around the telling moments and saving graces of otherwise untold lives. Olive Kitteridge is a retired high school maths teacher. Gruff, vinegary, but ultimately a soul built to last, she does not suffer fools but, at the same time, saves a man planning suicide and shows a kind of all-round sturdiness that recommends her. Capable of fierce love, she is also hopelessly undemonstrative with her own son, Christopher, and, in a darkly funny story, works with discreet malice against her status-conscious daughter-in-law. Her rather worn husband, Henry, a pharmacist on the verge of retirement, is capable of great loyalty to his difficult wife, even as he contemplates a late-life affair.

Strout’s stories impart a luminosity and quiet humour to otherwise unremarkable lives in a way that reminds me of Alice Munro’s work. Olive Kitteridge has recently been adapted as a four-part HBO miniseries with Frances McDormand in the title role.

The Emperor's Children

Claire Messud. The Emperor’s Children. (2006).

Messud’s The Emperor’s Children is, like Wolitizer’s The Interestings, concerned with a New York circle of friends who represent a cultural milieu. Messud’s novel has a shorter time scale, set in the year leading up to, and some months after, the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. Reminiscent of Jay McInerny’s Brightness Falls (1997), The Emperor’s Children deals with expensively educated thirty-somethings flailing away at the verge of either solid careers or failure. Julius, a gay, part-Vietnamese freelance journalist, has worn his charming schtick threadbare. Unable to steel his nerves for the demands of a regular gig, he is reduced to face-saving manoeuvres, such as calling the only decent suit in his wardrobe, an Agnes B number, his ‘signature suit’. Meanwhile, Marina is eking out her preposterous advance for her book on how children’s fashions express the changing values and aspirations of their parents. Their mutual friend, Danielle, is the main point of focus for the novel. Also a graduate from Brown, where they all met, Danielle is an outsider by virtue of her mid-west, single-mother home background. A producer for a documentary unit that rarely takes up her ambitious, socially-aware ideas, she finds herself stuck working on yet more hackneyed documentaries about cosmetic surgery gone wrong. She is tempted to join a new venture in commercial magazine publishing by an Australian media iconoclast called Ludovic Seeley. Looming over them all is the figure of Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, an entrenched opinion-maker for the liberal press, who garnered his reputation reporting on the Vietnam War and has been resting on it ever since. A classic ‘hollow man’ of the world of letters, Thwaite is the cause of Marina’s writer’s block and the target of Seeley’s anti-values campaign. Lastly, Thwaite’s nephew, Bootie, from an unremarkable small town, arrives in New York armed with Musil’s A Man Without Qualities and a searing, Emersonian ambition to be authentic and make it on his own. It is Bootie who ends up attempting to knock down the graven image of Murray Thwaite, only to bring exile on himself.

Messud’s novel is a comedy of manners about the artistic and liberal-democratic aspirations of New York’s cultural establishment and, more specifically, the generation of their children. It also casts a knowing eye over the hypocrisies and intellectual double-book-keeping of the entrenched liberal elite. Murray Thwaite, who espouses the values of rigor, honesty and keeping it real, is all the while recycling his hackneyed 1960s journalism and showing nothing but indifference to the troubled black teen his social justice lawyer wife is working to keep out of jail and whose mother perishes in the World Trade Center. Messud’s prose is at times too circuitous and there were many times when I sighed at the insularity of her characters; their assumption that something that happens to their kind of people in New York has happened to the world was just grating rather than satirical. But this was an unsentimental examination of a slice of American life and the character of Danielle in particular, felt trustworthy.

Further reading:

The New Republic review of The Interestings and another Messud novel The Woman Upstairs.

Kill Your Darlings interview with Meg Wolitzer about The Interestings for the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

An Uncanny Experience: Reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch.

In the ‘Staff Daily’ at the school where I work, a recent ‘Thought for the Day’ was something about what we do when we procrastinate being perhaps what we should do more of in our life. Clearly, with Year 11 exam scripts glaring at me from their pile and report deadlines looming, what I have chosen to do before all that is write about Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl.

gone girl book cover

Gone Girl is narrated in the first person by Flynn’s two protagonists, unhappily-married Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. Set against the backdrop of America’s post 2008 financial troubles, Flynn’s novel details the lives of Nick and Amy as they meet, fall in love, marry, move into the gorgeous New York brownstone that Amy’s parents buy for them (!!) and have what seems to be, on the surface, a couple of years of a reasonably good time … before both lose their jobs. From thenceforth, Nick moves them both back to his home town in Missouri once he hears that his mother, Maureen, has terminal cancer. From there, the reader is plunged into what can only be described as Midwest Noir. The physical and psychological landscape is somewhere between Capote’s In Cold Blood and David Lynch’s chilling portrayals of suburban menace.

Amy Dunne disappears from the protagonists’ characterless McMansion in a half-deserted housing estate. Her husband Nick is the main suspect. For the first half of the novel, the reader cannot decide whether or not Nick is the likely killer. He does not love Amy. He is having an affair. He is a heavy drinker. He is complacent and – crucially — dishonest, especially with himself. But is he capable of murder?

Gone Girl exhibits our current anxieties in spades: that the GFC and technology have conspired to put out of work whole swathes of the liberally-educated; that our media is a grotesque machine for churning our lurid stories that stoke insecurity and rage but leave us no sense of what the truth really is; that the promise of the post-WWII economic Dream has shrivelled to empty malls, stagnant real wages, high unemployment, vacated ex-urbs and rusting industrial sites.

At the heart of these social and economic fears is a very personal, intimate one: that no matter how much time you spend with your spouse, you may not ever really know them. The first half of the narrative draws on the female fear of male violence from those men closest to them. Most of all, once the plot enacts its ‘twist’, Flynn taps into a long narrative tradition about women and evil. Gone Girl is part of a recurrent idea that women remain essentially inscrutable to their flawed, but essentially ‘good guy’ husbands, and that behind the friendly smile and the offer to make a cooked breakfast lies a villainess plotting to kill you.

Flynn goes deep into the vein of patriarchal images of female villainy that link female violence with their sexuality and roles as mothers: Medea killing her children for vengeance; Lady Macbeth swearing she would “dash the brains” of a baby if she had given her word she would do so. And, yes, a baby makes an appearance in Flynn’s narrative. Beyond that, she contextualises her tale of female psycho-pathology in a landscape that is saturated with stories. Everything her protagonists Amy Elliot or Nick Dunne do is a reference to another narrative: the feminist one of rape victims; the social work one about middle-class domestic violence; the backlash one about men being turned into compliant “dancing monkeys” in their futile efforts to please demanding feminist wives; the other backlash one about the “surrendered wife”; and all of those narratives about crimes and how they are solved and how they play in the media. There is an ‘as-if-ness’ to everything in Nick and Amy’s lives, which seem as manufactured and bereft of context as their neighbourhood.

In setting up the cultural scene of her tale, Flynn piles on layer after layer of irony. Her entire narrative explores the impossibility of authenticity in an ultra-post-modern world where everything is mediated. This feature of the novel adds to the sensation of uncertainty and vertigo it induces in the reader. Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot work as writers at pop-culture magazines that promulgate the consumption ethic and comment on entertainment. When both are put out of work by the triple-whammy of online media, falling sales and the GFC, they are crushed by a sense of failure; they no longer measure up to the idealised image of ‘success’ their erstwhile employer-publications promote. They go from being cute thirty-somethings living in a New York brownstone, to out-of-work nobodies, living in an anonymous McMansion in Missouri. In other words, they go from players in a narrative of upward mobility and success, to victims of the very same values they once identified with.

Nick and Amy acclimatise to their return to Nick’s Missouri hometown very differently. However, they are similar in their patronising assumption that ‘real’ lives and really interesting people are in their forfeited New York. That’s where the main story is – and the Midwest is just ‘flyover’. This is where my reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ work analysing the ills of late-capitalism, The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins of Affluenza and Britain on the Couch: How Keeping up with the Joneses Has Depressed Us Since 1950 was so illuminating and uncanny. While commentators on the novel have pointed out its connection to feminism and the ills of married life, few seem to be prepared to link Amy’s pathology to the contemporary rise in unhealthy social comparison, particularly in its pathological manifestation as clinical narcissism. These are the cultural trends explored in James’s work that make a perfect gloss to Flynn’s text.

In Nick’s account, the move to Missouri disorients Amy because her carefully constructed and competitively maintained persona as “Amazing” (a word used with deadly drollery in Flynn’s novel) has no purchase in their new milieu:

“My wife had a brilliant, popping brain, a greedy curiosity. But her obsessions tended to be fuelled by competition: She needed to dazzle men and jealous-ify women: Of course Amy can cook French cuisine and speak fluent Spanish and garden and knit and run marathons and fly a plane and look like a runway model doing it. She needed to be Amazing Amy, all the time. Here in Missouri, the women shop at Target, they make diligent, comforting meals, they laugh about how little high school Spanish they remember. Competition doesn’t interest them. Amy’s relentless achieving is greeted with open-palmed acceptance and maybe a bit of pity. It was about the worst outcome possible for my competitive wife: A town of contended also-rans.”

Nick adjusts by taking the last of Amy’s trust fund (raided earlier by her feckless parents) to open a bar, knowingly called ‘The Bar’. Meanwhile, Amy tries playacting the role of ‘good wife’ and grateful daughter-in-law to Nick’s wonderful mother, and his misogynist, demented father, who regularly escapes from a comfortless nursing home.

Once Amy goes missing and Nick is a prime suspect, his side of the narrative is caught up in the pantomime of trying to appear ‘right’ to TV viewers. While Amy is relentlessly involved in constructing and maintaining a perfect self-image, Nick is castigated by various characters for failing to understand that one of his chief tasks is to successfully play a role. To the reader, Nick’s reaction to Amy’s disappearance is not quite right – we suspect him – but at the same time, we see how even an innocent man would be forced to play the role of “Innocent Man” under such circumstances.

Amy’s parents, child psychologists (but of course!) have made a mint over the years from a twee children’s book series called “Amazing Amy”. In the books, Amy-as-character does all the things that her parents evidently wishes she would do, too. While the real childhood Amy was a fledgling Queen Bee who ran a “Ponzi scheme” of intimidation among her school peers, the fictional Amy played fair and was reliable and generous. While the real thirty-something Amy is single, her fictional double gets married. Flynn creates a psychological backstory in which Amy has been trained, from early life, to construct a performed identity based on what her parents (and their publishers) want. Exterior perfection counts for all, and it is buffed to a high shine, while the inner life remains dusty and dim. Gone Girl’s sweetly vicious heroine is the embodiment of female empowerment crossed with rampant social competitiveness.

Gone Girl draws its power from several tensions and contradictions in contemporary liberal democracies. We invest in our romantic and marital relationships as a source of fulfilment and meaning in a cold, competitive world. Meanwhile, our rates of divorce and family dysfunction are sky-high. The promise of individual success is held up as more alluring than ever, but the economic realities make this a distant possibility for the majority. The novel paints a world of vanished hope for upward mobility and increased prosperity for all; Nick is a first-generation university graduate from his family, and winds up just where his forebears started.

Another issue, embodied in the eponymous ‘Girl’, is the way in which the hyper-mediated, consumption-driven culture we live in now encourages people to have extremely high expectations for their lifestyle and themselves. As James points out in Britain on the Couch, one of the effects of our living in a media-saturated world, is that the people with whom we compare our lives now includes celebrities, and a cornucopia of images of wealth, status, beauty and success. What’s more, psychological studies show that, at a deep unconscious level, we tend to blur the line between fantasy and reality. Hence, it does not matter that we ‘know’ that fashion images are photo-shopped and that our media give disproportionate time to the rich and beautiful. We still feel inadequate and that we ought to meet these ideals. Gone Girl explores how our quest for self-actualisation and success has grown more intense, just at the historical moment when ordinary people are increasingly exposed to economic ill-winds that make it more and more likely that they will fail. Flynn’s Amy is faced with a choice: either accept her downward mobility and adjust accordingly, or rig reality in such a way that her self-aggrandising image is maintained. Ultimately, the story of Amy Elliot and Nick Dunne is an exploration of how devotion to a particular kind of self-image and consumer-success can become, well, psychotic.

Oliver james selfish capitalist

Gone Girl delivers a satire on the pathological culture of self-regard that is so very evident in Flynn’s characterisation of both her protagonists. In the psychology of the fatally married narcissists that Flynn portrays, the pursuit of the life that they are each ‘entitled’ to, sweeps aside other people’s subjectivities and rights, and indeed, reality. This is the motivation that underwrites Gone Girl’s skewed and nauseating ending.

Both Amy Elliot and her husband, Nick Dunne, are unattractive characters; I did not warm to the self-satisfied husband. Nick seems to think that if he does not get what he wants out of life, then there is no reason why his wife should either, and he certainly could not be expected to exert himself to make her feel valued for herself. Indeed, Amy’s scathing account of his desire to marry a ‘Cool Girl’ was, like the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, clearly a male fantasy that does not serve women well. However, I found her creation in ‘Amazing Amy’ a tour de force perversion of feminist ideals. Amy’s ‘feminism’ is nothing less than the demand that she get everything someone as beautiful and accomplished as she clearly ‘deserves’.

Reading Gone Girl alongside the ostensibly unrelated texts by Oliver James, The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch allowed me to see these patterns in Flynn’s text. James contends that the neo-liberal market policies pursued in largely English-speaking countries since the late 1970s have produced a significant upswing in the rates of psychological distress in those countries. Fuelled by increased job insecurity, longer and more intense working hours, long commutes, increased housing costs, and constant bombardment by marketing messages, James argues that we are seeing higher-rates of emotional distress. These rates include serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and greater rates of anxiety and depression. Intriguingly, we are also seeing increased numbers of sociopaths and narcissists, particularly in the contemporary workplace. Using comparison data from capitalist counties that did not adopt neo-liberal policies (mostly Western Europe) that show lower rates of psychological distress, James argues that the higher rates could be caused by our political and economic environment. Large household debt to fund ever-larger expenses for housing, private schooling and ‘keeping up appearances’ are among the culprits in James’s account, while the lower rates of mental illness in Western Europe, he suggests, are because of structural protections such as welfare and industrial relations laws, as well as cultural tendencies that prioritise non-materialist values.

James draws on research by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, whose book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement outlines evidence that younger Americans are more self-absorbed, but less happy, than previous generations. They, too, think this is a cultural effect (rather than genetic) that has a lot to do with the increased emphasis on success and self-presentation in our world. Their work makes an interesting counter-point to Gone Girl, including its portrayal of the realities of a post-GFC world:

“American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.”

Materialist values favour money, possessions, appearance and fame, and they are at the heart of “Amazing Amy’s” pathology. As Joshua Rothman, of The New Yorker, in his analysis of the Gone Girl phenomenon, writes

“ … our concepts of masculinity and femininity—and of personhood, success, and freedom—have grown less compatible with the compromises of coupled life. The men’s and women’s magazines for which Nick and Amy worked tell us that our ideal selves are urban, maximally attractive, and maximally single, with absolute career freedom, no children, and plenty of time for the gym.”

In other words, not a lot of empathy, compassion, negotiation, or realism – ingredients for relationships. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has written a psychologically sophisticated thriller that prompts a forensic analysis of the cult of personal success.

Reflection on seeing Maria Popova, the woman behind Brain Pickings.

My father is a radio ham. He uses Morse code, mainly, and designs and constructs various instruments for the generating and processing of radio signals. His shed is a classic “Men’s’ shed”, complete with a shadow board, with each tool in its place, soldering iron, work bench, and rows and rows of jars filled with resistors, capacitors, and the equipment of his hobby. It smells of old steel, oil, solder flux, and wood dust. As far as I can tell, one of the centrepieces of a radio ham’s life is an instrument called a transmitter-receiver. The best transmitter-receivers eliminate noise and boost the signal, making sure that whatever is being communicated can cross the globe, dancing on the rhythm of those dots and dashes.

A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver. Image credit: Henke Tobbe. https://www.flickr.com/photos/vk2gwk/4705522931/in/photolist-8aP32H-dMchC-9LSfmx-67rjM7-pD9KA-bzkkkF-7hSpv2-8a85GM-etBjL-7zMoA1-d6CYW5-9uRBSN-pj8wU-8a866T-7Mvye3-7MrzUc-7MrA3F-7MrzX4-7Mvya1-7MrA2g-7MvywG-7Mvycj-7MvyoS-7MvyuE-7MvyfQ-7MrzVF-8axZfm-4oiMrb-ds856S-4R5Lh7-4k5YKD-nfoeCB-cXJpZ1-7iZCUr-5Yv7mg-4meFxq-4mv1Dx-9WukAx-nHcec2-aqfNtu-5zsiFZ-7S3jq9-fuQDHZ-f6Uz3N-7UiUAe-5Cd6UB-aCFcXf-bnhmoj-26a8n-bnSy3C
A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver.
Image credit: Henke Tobbe. 

For a long time now, I have pondered the significance of that transmitter-receiver. In my father’s world, passing on a signal with the minimum of interference is the goal. But for me it is suggestive as a metaphor of the kind of subjectivity our culture and economy seems to prefer – – each of us just nodes on a grid, seamlessly passing on money, goods, services, messages, and received ideas in a well-oiled way with the minimum of interference, or input, from the individual. Meanings and money are fixed, known quantities. Learning and education is geared towards fitting each student with the skills to slide into this network, another node for the better functioning and flow of messages and money and productivity. Interpretation, questioning, or dissent are treated as ‘noise’ – interference that slows down the smooth transmission of the signal.

There are, of course, other, alternative models out there that see each of us as participants, co-creators of a world. This model welcomes ‘noise’ as creative dissent, interpretation, or individual and collaborative meaning-making. One of the proponents of these ideas is blogger Maria Popova, who spoke at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Thursday.

Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings, is a friend in your in-box – a weekly compendium of readings about thinking, reading, creating, and the process of making a meaningful life. Popova’s blog has more than 7 million readers, an indicator of the value people find in the weekly musings that she says are primarily a document of the evolution of her thinking. In our current secular age, the thirst for meaning and purpose has not gone away; instead, we look for other methods by which to explore and arrive at a core ethical stance on our experience and a language for constructing a story of what we are trying to do with our lives. Popova’s work points up an interesting paradox – by writing about her own personal journey of sense-making, she has addressed a felt need in millions of readers.

In this way, Brain Pickings can be seen as part of a cluster of developments. There is The School of Life, with its newsletter The Philosopher’s Mail. The work of Alain De Botton and John Armstrong similarly tries to ground philosophy in considerations of everyday life and its predicaments. De Botton’s writings and television series are well known and loved, while his collaborator, Armstrong, has transferred his work from a philosophy department to schools of business and civil society. Both Armstrong and De Botton also contribute to The School of Life. In a lighter way, the work of Gretchen Rubin also highlights the search for meaning in a late-capitalist world, what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’ that had a great deal to do with social contribution and higher purpose. Meanwhile, the biting work of Oliver James grapples with the darker sides of late capitalist meaninglessness and aimlessness. All of this and more indicates how the web is offering a home to many people’s attempts to bridge the gap between the recherché areas of academic philosophy and psychology and the ‘common reader’ – that person who is not necessarily working in an academic department, but who thirsts for reading and discussion and reflection about life in a way denied by much workplace culture and the culture of consumption. (Feeling depressed? Here, buy this car. Now work to pay it off.)

 

In her talk Popova explained how her blog got started: she was working in a design firm and noticed that her co-workers tended to get ideas only from other designers. She was dissatisfied with this and wanted to source ideas from beyond the boundaries of design. This laid the groundwork for her syncretic approach whereby writings about science, illustration, design, architecture, fine art, travel, and poetry sit side by side, often setting up conversations between the different disciplines and their ways of knowing. Apparently, once a week, she would send a little email out to a circle of friends with links to interesting and inspiring things to read. Little by little, this newsletter gained a second-hand following, as her friends forwarded it to more and more people. With the development of blogging, Popova had a platform to write and share her musings to whomever wanted to subscribe. Now she has a full-time job managing it and doing off-line work that emerges from it, such as judging at literary festivals and, of course, presenting at book and writers’ festivals.

So what were the main insights that Popova wanted to share with us that night? Many of them were close to my heart, as she emphasised, in various ways, the necessity for all of us to undertake the work of developing our knowledge and using that knowledge to develop an ethic and wisdom that is individual to us. As an educator, too, a lot of what she said chimed in to a constructivist approach to learning; even though she did not mention this philosophy by name, a great deal of her project relates to the learning theories of Jean Piaget and George Kelly that have heavily influenced contemporary education practice, but which, in their world view, are resistant to the ‘transmitter-receiver’ subject presumed by much reductive political discourse about the role of schools and universities.

Here are some of her insights that resonated with me:

  1. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Popova spoke to our current tendency to think that we know more simply by virtue of having access to huge amounts of information. However, as anyone with a grandparent can tell you, there are types of knowledge and ways of knowing that are actually being lost. What’s more, just having access to information does not mean you know how to use it.

Using the analogy of Lego bricks, Popova argued that if we know very little, we have few Lego bricks with which to build our understanding of our life and the world. You can build something, but without a range of colours and shapes, and without very many bricks, you are very limited in what you can build. What’s more, you also need to develop a sense for yourself about what you are trying to build, how to select information and how to apply knowledge to the various situations and dilemmas of life. This accumulation, sifting, and application of knowledge, with reflection, develops wisdom.

This links to my ongoing thinking about why we teach imaginative and long-form literature to students, despite their increasing facility with accessing information on the web. Literature is ‘information’ but in a very specialised sense, and not in the same sense as a manual about how to operate some software, or a map of a city. Literature is information that must be interpreted by the reader by bringing with them all that they already know and their imagination. And, that active practice of interpretation, or making meaning from the text, is collaborative and reflective, adding a few more ‘Lego Bricks’ to the student’s collection. What’s more, the elaboration of ideas and versions of life that comes from studying literature provides the thoughtful individual with a wider range of reference and meaning with which to approach their own life. We have greater choice over the narratives we tell ourselves and each other and hence are less susceptible to uniform, standardised, limiting versions of who we are and who we should try to be.

This is why, in short, the current idea that we do not need to teach content, but just teach students how to find information does not quite add up. The greater the scope of our knowledge and the wider our horizons, the better able we are to assimilate and make use of new information. Content and information savvy go together. I can access a Chinese manuscript – but I cannot read and make sense of it. That is because I do not know Chinese. We need both knowledge and wisdom to make use of information deeply, ethically, and imaginatively.

  1. We need to be open to ideas beyond our specialisation, but also selective and discerning users of new ideas.

This was a less emphasised idea in Popova’s talk, that really only came through during the Q & A session. What she seemed to be getting at is, in a world of information deluge, we do need to be open and not close ourselves off into a disciplinary cul-de-sac. However, we are also charged with developing our own sense of what is meaningful to us, and attend to our own cultivation and ethic that helps us select and make sense of the new ideas we encounter. What Popova is talking about here is a kind of Web 2.0 version of the psychological concept of individuation – in order for us not to become mass-produced, standardised beings, we need to create our own unique constellation of meanings and reference points. These will still converse with those shared by the community and wider world, but they are our unique ‘playlist’.

  1. Writing is not ‘content’.

This was another issue that emerged only fully during the Q & A session. A question was posed about how Popova went about generating the ‘content’ for her site. She critiqued the idea of ‘content’, saying writing for the web is like writing for the page – – to think of the words you write as ‘content’ is to think of your work as just some inert stuff that fills up an empty or blank space. Thinking of writing as ‘content’ also does not pay respect to the reader, who is not just there to have inane, worthless verbal garbage dumped into their in-box, the habits of many media outlets notwithstanding. Popova pointed out that her research found that over time, some of the writers who have received the most high-prestige awards for their work were not necessarily the most productive, in terms of just churning out a lot of written verbiage. It was those who resisted the cult of productivity for its own sake that tended to their work with the most care and art.

  1. Most things that are worthwhile take a long time.

This was one of the main ‘learnings’ that Popova has taken away from seven years of working on Brain Pickings. She said that in our endless rush to be productive, we can forget the value of giving space and time to our thoughts – and “thoughts need space.” This is yet another voice in resistance to the cult of mindless busyness that seems to have taken root in almost every nook and cranny of our culture. Take time to reflect, wander, read purely for pleasure, read slowly, and go off the well-planned and programmed track.

Apart from a bit of TED-talk style walking to and fro, which had me watching the Auslan interpreter to prevent myself from becoming dizzy, I enjoyed Popova’s talk. She is not an literary artist in the traditional sense of the word, and, indeed, a great deal of what she does is summarising and curating (a word she bristled at when someone used it of her work). However, Popova’s project is nourishing and enabling in the style of a good teacher – – I walked out of her talk feeling more than ever energised to pursue my own work.

Image Credit: IDS Photos
Image Credit: IDS Photos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Links:

The Philosophers’ Mail: http://thephilosophersmail.com/

Brain Pickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/

The School of Life: http://www.theschooloflife.com/

The School of Life Melbourne Campus: http://www.theschooloflife.com/melbourne/

John Armstrong: http://www.johnarmstrong.com.au/

John Armstrong at the University of Tasmania: http://www.utas.edu.au/provost/inglis-clark-centre/people/honorary-positions

Alain De Botton: http://alaindebotton.com/

Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2014: http://www.mwf.com.au/

Interview with Maria Popova for Dumbo Feather: http://www.dumbofeather.com/conversation/maria-popova-is-a-brain-picker/

Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project: http://www.gretchenrubin.com/

Oliver James: http://www.selfishcapitalist.com/

Abraham Maslow: http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/tp/self-actualized-characteristic.htm

Piaget and schema theory: http://www.etsu.edu/fsi/learning/schematheory.aspx

George Kelly and Constructivist Psychology: http://www.goodtherapy.org/constructivism.html#

Constructivism in education: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(psychological_school)