In my last post, I explained how I had recently given a very simple in-class creative writing assignment, one in which students were instructed to write the word “God” at the top of the page and afterwards just let the words fall underneath it; two plus one is one according to Stevens: no boundaries, no judgements. Just words.
And after I published that story, I received a response from a fellow blogger asking for a follow-up article, so here it is after math, the outcome of the creative writing god class experiment.
Intially, the “God” experiment had been a crescendoing success I believed. First we spent some time looking at works examining the realm of spirituality, works from Blake and Whitman to Ginsberg and spoken word, at the same time allowing students to come up front and google things they liked as well. .. and I left class that day feeling as if an enormous shake-weight had been lifted off my shoulders. First came a sigh of relief, which was deep and gratifying.
And then came the fear, self-loathing and sur-reality.
But then came the time to reconvene and read them.
Thursday, 2 pm:
It was unexplored territory to say the least. I mean, the topic HAD come up before in class, many times, and in these days with their debates and almost no separation of church and state, it’s unrealistic to think we can just be mum about it. And as you read this, know there is a big pink elephant in the middle of the webpage as well. It is letting go a lot of flatulence and somebody has got to address it before we all pass out from holding our breath. (And if it seems like I try too hard to avoid any kind of conflict in the classroom whatsoever, even in an academic setting, wherein the default was and always has been science and empirical evidence, then I guess I should point out that I am also untenured faculty. I CAN’T just point to factual information and tell them to change the subject. In these straits, I am not at liberty to make anyone unhappy in that classroom! Because such acts of real or imagined exclusion can lead to the hugeness of mutinies, mutinies to registered complaints, then bad evaluations.
And without the protection of tenure, under such circumstances wherein an anonymous citizen’s arrest has just been registered, you stand alone before the higher ups. And the truth is, there is no defense. For the most part, you just don’t get called back the next semester. This has been a double-edged sword I have learned to swallow with both hands. On the one hand, it’s incredibly painful to be aware of such intense scrutiny from my students, but on the other, I am thankful for that accountablity. It makes me stop and think before I say a word to anyone, and even though I do get it wrong a lot, I like that I am trying harder too. 🙂 )
Sometimes it would be smooth sailing and others just like Scylla and Charybdis, and in having had no prior training in peace-keeping and mediation in these matters, I flailed around in trying all kinds of awkward methods to diffuse the difficulties around it, everything from banning any kind of cross talk to inviting everyone to share to the point of free-for-all. . .the latter ironically though more painful and more trouble with evaluations and complaints, at the same time MUCH more gratifying than the former I must say,
And as I coached on how to proceed this time, I felt myself needing to pay very close attention to my own advice. Truth be told, I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I do know this is how I had hoped to come across and that is:
“OK, so here’s what let’s do. Let’s try to keep in mind that this is just exploration. We’ve all just had some time to be free with our thoughts and just express whatever wells up inside as we write. So let’s try to keep the non-judgemental frame around this. Because everybody has their own journey. And this is just about sharing what has happened along the way. There’s no right way or wrong way to behave about any of this. There is only putting one foot in front of the other and taking notes as we go. So here we go. Let’s do that, shall we?”
At first the room was quiet, but that did not last very long.
And honestly, at this point I really must confess to having been so discombulated from focusing on getting this right that as I try to recall what happened, I don’t even remember who went first.
What I do remember most at the beginning was pausing to offer some encouragement.
To someone who seemed both anxious to get a chance to unburden his thoughts but also rather reticent at the prospect of being judged in doing so.
And in his reticence, it just made everyone else all the more curious. ..curiousity that led to a bit of prodding, followed by a show of support and reassurance.
And so he read. Head bent down a bit at first and voice trembling, but as the room grew quiet and the other students leaned forward to listen, the words grew louder and clearer.
And then it happened, beginning with him. ..until all those freewrites just spilled into the room like light breaking on still waters.
Afterwards, and I guess in seeing that he was able to vent without getting struck down by Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, everyone else just seemed that much more eager to share their own stories. And at times the room would fall silent too. And there were some very awkward pauses followed by my own attempts to make bridges and find common ground. Mostly I was groping though. Just feeling around and watching faces to make sure I wasn’t leaving anyone out and alienated.
But for the most part I felt good about how we all found ways to navigate those waters and keep afloat during such a challenging passage. And also proud of how well we all had handled it as a learning community, their sweetness and sensibilites intact as we left together that day. It was all good.
In retrospect and in all honesty, I still feel a little bit heart-broken about the ones in the back, the ones who seemed the shyest to speak. I still feel the need to work on helping them to feel safe enough as to share all the facets of what they are feeling and I also believe that it will be amazing when they do, so that part is next on my agenda.