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Teaching to Save Our Lives

Teaching to Save Our Lives
by Will Hochman
hochmanw1@southernct.edu

“It is not, in the final analysis, what you don’t know that can or cannot hurt you. It is what you don’t know you don’t know that spins out and entangles ‘that perpetual error we call life’” says Barbara Johnson in the preface of her fine collection of essays, The Critical Difference. I started a critical review of the CCCC ten years ago so that the CCCC community would have a memory and a way to extend its annual reach beyond those who attend to any of its virtual members with the interest to click on our review. It seemed right then and seems even more applicable now (thanks to Chris Dean’s leadership) to acknowledge the ideas that come together in our conference in written, critical ways that can survey the breadth and depth of our intellectual community. Ironically, I begin this tenth year of reviewing based on what I don’t know about the 2009 CCCC because I, for the first time in two decades, I was unable to attend my field’s most important gathering.

At least I do know what I don’t know about the conference based on so many years of attendance, based on the fact that it was only a few years ago the conference was held in San Francisco, and based on the contents of this collaborative review. In other words, I can imagine much of what happened this year without being there because much of our work, even our so called “cutting edge” ideas, exists in an academic feedback loop of presentations, publications and practices that reflect and recall as much as they move forward. Indeed, this review is a way to sharpen our collective memory so that future presenters are more conscious of what our conference community has been talking about and it is also an archive about how we come together to create and recreate meaning.

Not being part of one year’s cycle is not really a catastrophe, nor should it represent critical ignorance. I was stopped this year by my own health and unable to travel, and I may be rationalizing my absence. But, as you read the critical and creative responses to our conference in this year’s review, I hope you agree with me that the experience of our coming together is ongoing and always present in our compositions and teaching.

To make this argument, I’m going to briefly (via Wikipedia) call on John Keats' theory of negative capability. He first expressed this idea in a letter to George and Thomas Keats on December 28, 1817.

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Keats was arguing that critics and poets have the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved. Therefore, I’m suggesting that you may not be able to resolve my absence as a reason for deserving a place in this year’s review, but I am requesting that you give this old compositionist and poet a chance to explain. After all, I have taught first year composition consecutively since l979. Even as tenured, full professor, I continue to teach at least two sections of composition. I might also boast as a poet and literature scholar that I have published several books of poems, and I’m on my second critical study of J.D. Salinger. However, I want to explain that nothing is more vital and thrilling to me than teaching composition and learning how to do it better. I want readers of this review to know how important the critical response here is to us, and to our students.

Another twist on the term, “negative capability” in this day and age can be chillingly achieved with one word: “cancer.” Ironically, inside so many of us is the capability to kill ourselves with the growth of our own cells. I was diagnosed with hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer) on Christmas Eve and spent my entire semester break working with my doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital to recover from surgery and cure myself with chemo. The last thing I worried about was attending the CCCC. I didn’t even think much about returning to my classes in the spring term because I had to concentrate on finding a cure while also preparing my family for life without me. I didn’t have the energy to write and was in agony over the fact that I didn’t have two manuscripts (one critical, the other my next book of poems) finished. I had been working on both projects for several years, and I was angry that I may not be able to finish them.

I am the son of a third grade teacher who taught me the art of learning. I am also the son of two parents who died of cancer, so I was not naïve about my prognosis. I united the best team of health care specialists I could fine under the leadership of my wife, Jan Ellen Spiegel. Together, we decided to fight my cancer (though not without discussion of running away to some faraway island) and mapped out a plan for me to become eligible for a liver transplant. I didn’t think at first that teaching composition was integral to that plan, but I learned over the course of the spring term that it would be my best medicine. It may sound too dramatic to say so, but I believe that being able to team teach three composition classes with two very generous teachers (Andrea Beaudin and Lois Lake Church) literally saved my life.

Cheryl Glenn argues in Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence that silence is a rhetorical art and a major part of speech. She begins her book with these lines from “Cartographies of Silence” by Adrienne Rich:

Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed
the blueprint of a life
It is a presence
it has a history a form
Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

Essentially, my CCCC attendance was silenced, but, in doing so, the art of the rhetoric here is to show you that my silencing has meaning. I hope my admission of having cancer doesn’t encourage empathy so much as help you know that the act of being able to teach and live a life that I could lose at any time made the classroom and my students more holy and necessary than ever before. By doing what we too often call “teaching in the trenches,” I found the ability to keep on keeping on. By becoming necessary to others, I found the daily ability to avoid the pathos and pain of my own condition. And by being integral to my school’s composition learning communities, I found the energy and inspiration to return to my own writing.

I don’t like writing about my health problems, but I just finished The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and reading his book made me realize that I could continue teaching by not hiding my health problems. The only thing I regret about ending my classes this term is my slight dishonesty of appearing to be fine to my students and colleagues. However, I also know that the act of cloaking my illness was also part of why I am still alive today. Pausch agrees with the Roman philosopher, Seneca, when it comes to understanding luck as something that results when preparation converges with opportunity. In this way, I was lucky to have a chair (Mike Shea) who constructed a flexible, team teaching structure for me to continue working as long as I was healthy, and I was lucky to have colleagues willing to share their classes with me. I had trained my colleagues as graduate students and former adjuncts and the opportunity to work with them again has not only kept me going but also invigorated my ideas about teaching and learning. It also helped to walk into classes and imagine that I was not cancerous and pretend I was the same writing teacher I always try to be.

I offer my story here as a parable. Just as I was renewed and saved by my students and colleagues, I believe something very similar happens to us at the CCCC. Our “luck” is being able prepare our papers and trips and have the opportunity to work together for several days to find ourselves refreshed and informed as the teachers, scholars, and artists we are. I hope as you scan these reviews you look for the deep ideas and connections that are so vital to you that they may also save your teaching lives or at least help you to keep on keeping on. What we do as writing teachers not only enhances our own lives but saves the learning lives of so many students that I hesitate to stop my introduction here. I certainly abhor endings of any kind these days, so instead I’d like to walk off the fine stage of introducing this critical review singing and dancing in the best word way I know.

* * * * *

Notes from the Old Tree Teacher

Coe Logan, my 93 year-old neighbor is a dying sugar maple of love.
Ghostlike, she branches time, echoic of herself, her home almost a century
Of roots, her house empty tonight as this wooden woman struggles
Unconsciously asleep, fighting a vile stroke as sudden as a hatchet.

Her favorite time of year used to be now, mostly just to note when lilacs
begin to make their scented presence known and when her lawn couldn’t look
any greener. The fragrance and spectacle of disease is not from dying or not dying,
but from decay of memory breaking dead branches off before the tree is gone.

The perfect recollection of lilacs blooming her perfume in the night air lines up here.
Like many trees of her species, she strokes the wind with tree-top grace and reason
until free to dream herself home again. Breathe...take time to write and love teaching.
Think good medicine. Think good nature. Think each word saves a life.

Works Cited

Glenn, Cheryl. Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. Print.
"Negative Capability." Wikipedia. 2009. Wikipedia. Web.2 Aug 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_capability.
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Page last modified on August 11, 2009, at 11:54 AM