Metaphors Make Us: Llamas, Learning, and the Butterfly Effect
At a convocation that opened the 2001-2002 academic year at St. Benedict's, Sister Mara Faulkner provided students and faculty with a powerful reflection on learning. The text of that speech is reprinted here.
Mara Faulkner, O.S.B.
Many destructive educational metaphors are floating around. I have time to describe only one, which I believe perverts and trivializes learning for all of us. It is the metaphor that describes colleges as corporations and learning as a business transaction. This metaphor turns you, our students, into consumers, and us, your teachers, into salespeople trying to convince you that the rusty Taurus we're trying to sell you has only forty thousand miles on it and that the odometer hasn't been turned back twice. Worst of all, it turns the exciting, living subjects at the center of our classes into commodities. Learning then becomes a little package that can be squeezed flat enough to fit into a classroom or onto a test; it is small enough to be bought with an A or a B.
Because I think the metaphor of schools as corporations is so poverty-stricken, I'd like to try out a couple of others that could make your years here more challenging, dangerous, and adventuresome for all of us.
The first one is the butterfly effect. I expect you've heard about the theory that monarch butterflies opening and closing delicate brown and orange wings in a southern rainforest can change the weather in Minnesota. This doesn't mean, of course, that one monarch can make a thunderstorm; it means almost the opposite-that in a vast and intricate system, every energy impulse matters to the whole in incalculable ways. If we were to take the butterfly effect as a metaphor for education, it would tell us that what each of us thinks and says and does influences the whole. As part of creation, we're not isolated atoms, unconnected to each other. We are, for good and ill, part of each other; like it or not, all of us, students, teachers, administrators, staff, need each other and are responsible for each others' well being. As poet Maria Mitchell says in a poem called "Our Whole System,"
reach though all space and the tremor
I'd go further: our thoughts, imaginings, feelings also vibrate out to the edges of the universe. I know that each of you wants those vibrations to be the best and the truest you have to offer.
Here's another story. A few years ago, a symposium class told one of my colleagues that what he was trying to teach them was boring. He asked them, "Well, what are you interested in?" The outspoken members of his class said, "Sex, drugs, and booze." The other members of the class were silent. When I heard that story, I felt sorry for everyone-the students who honestly planned to spend the next four years researching sex, drugs, and liquor, and the teacher, who quit teaching entirely at the end of that year, certain that his students could teach him far more than he could teach them about their chosen subjects. I felt especially sorry for the other students in the class, the silent ones who were interested in a million things but didn't dare say so. My long experience tells me that someone in that class may have been interested in the kids in the Jamaican orphanage she had visited with her youth group; another in glaciers and what they reveal about climate change; a third in the solitude and silence of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and how to sustain it; another in building affordable housing or helping a troubled friend; still another in techno music, chaos theory, her questions about God and faith, the grandmother she plays pinochle with, her new, bright-eyed nephew.
Surely, rambunctious women could change the weather here and around the world. But, sadly, many students tell me in various ways that they leave most of themselves outside when they enter our classrooms, and that they suspect their teachers do the same. In every class when I assign the first essay, a parade of students asks me, "Is it okay to say I in this paper?" I hear, wrapped up in that question, two disheartening beliefs: that students are supposed to abandon their voices and their opinions when they enter the academic world, and that an essay is a pathetic thing in which you tell the teacher what she wants to hear, in someone else's voice, putting your own ideas in the conclusion-or nowhere. You don't give a rip about it, except to hope for a good grade. I hope that description doesn't sound familiar, but I fear that it does.
But the College of St. Benedict was founded by Benedictine sisters to counter that voicelessness. For more than fifteen hundred years, Benedictine monasteries have been shelters for women in sexist and patriarchal societies. They've been relatively safe places where women were expected to have ideas, questions, leadership ability, the desire and capacity to learn. It was a natural step for Benedictine women to found schools where girls' and women's minds and ideas could be taken seriously, and their voices heard.
Of course, real questions are also dangerous, transgressing the boundaries set by family, church, culture, and maybe this very school. In the 1960s, a teacher named Paulo Freire was expelled from Brazil for practicing what he called "the pedagogy of the oppressed." He taught poor, illiterate adults to read and, at the same time, to ask critical questions. A strategy that gets someone kicked out of a military dictatorship deserves a closer look as something potentially valuable. Paulo Freire was accomplishing the dangerous result that all good teaching should aim for-giving people the authority to think their own thoughts, say their own words, name the world. I promise you that if each of you comes to every class every day with one real question, you'll be better students, and you'll make us better teachers and this an even better school. More important, your questions will vibrate to the ends of the universe.
Now, back to these llamas up here on the stage. I know quite a bit about llamas because last summer I and some members of my family went on a backpacking trip in northwestern Yellowstone, far from Old Faithful and a million other tourists but close to the forest fires raging in Montana and Wyoming. We carried our own packs, while our six llama companions carried tents, food, and supplies. My llama was black and white and was named Flying Tiger. I was the oldest person on the trip and had had knee surgery in June. No one, least of all me, was sure I would be able to make the long, steep hikes, which sometimes stretched to eight hours. But when I thought I couldn't take another step, Flying Tiger leaned his wooly head between my shoulder blades and nudged me up the mountain, one step, then another. That's why I think llamas are a good metaphor for teachers. By teachers, I mean all the people here who are mentors in one way or another. They can't carry you-their backs aren't built for it-but they can carry some of what you need for the trip, and they can set a steady pace, surefooted on rocky, uneven trails, and breathing easily in the high, thin air. Instead of hooves they have silent, padded feet that don't trample the human or natural eco-system. They never hurry, but they don't stop either; and when the forest fires came nearer, sending up great plumes of smoke over the red sun, their calmness kept us calm, in spite of the danger. On the last day, we had to flee the fires, heading out of the park as darkness fell, our friendly llamas at our sides. We made it, obviously, dirty, tired, blistered, and utterly happy, exhilarated, and more sure of our strength and resilience. I hope that my colleagues and I, whether or not we hum, can be llama-like companions for you these next few years.
If these metaphors don't ring any bells for you, I have a pocketful I pull out when school gets dreary, and I'd be glad to tell you about them anytime. They involve white-water rafting, elephants and hills, and Irish hedgerow schools where everyone was starving, and teaching and learning were punishable crimes. More important, I urge you to find your own metaphors, ones that will enliven you and enable you to bring all of who you are to this place and to the important work we're doing together. Bring your family, your ancestors, your sense of humor, your successes and failures; bring the hunger for your life to mean something and the desire to give that I know is in all of you.
Thank you for coming to this convocation and to this school, and welcome to all you are and all you will become!
Notes from the Acting Chair
During the 2002-2003 academic year, David Rothstein, O.S.B., and Madhu Mitra will take full-year sabbaticals to pursue research and writing projects. Both David and Madhu are planning interesting work.
Between August and December 2002, David proposes visiting intentional communities in the United States. He plans to visit St. Vincent Dominican Priory in New York as well as other intentional communities to gain first-hand information on communities based on "environmental sustainability, cooperative organization, or religious affiliation." David expects to investigate "community building, community ethics, and sustainable community practices." His goal is to develop a senior seminar course that focuses on "literary, historical, and sociological dimensions of intentional communities in America." Such a course fits well with both the mission of the colleges and the Core curriculum since it will explore the ethical dimensions of sustainability and organizational structures.
The second aspect of David's proposal is to "study current developments in Marxist and cultural materialist theory" at CUNY from January to May 2003. Last year, David and I worked together in developing two new courses for the English curriculum. These courses were intended to meet students' need to study theory and culture at the lower-division level. Our students know that these areas are significant aspects of the Graduate Record Exam as well as graduate studies programs everywhere. David developed and taught one of these courses in fall semester: English 243, "Reading Literature, Theory, and Culture." This course comes out of David's background and graduate work. He proposes to continue his study at CUNY during the second part of his sabbatical and to write two essays on his work there.
Madhu is in a unique position to write about Clive not only because of her childhood experiences but also because of her research into East India Company records at the British Library. She vividly remembers "Clive's dilapidated old mansion now inhabited by squatters and refugees from the Bengal countryside." She adds: "It was the romantic gothic mansion of my girlhood fantasies; it was also an eyesore-a squalid reminder of how little an important historical monument meant to the impoverished people of the country (people whose impoverishment had a lot to do with the legacies of Clive, of course)."
Although the English Department will be a bit short-handed next year, both David's and Madhu's projects will enhance the depth and sophistication of our offerings for years to come.
New Course in Theory and Culture
In fall 2001, the English Department offered two new 200-level courses. I had the pleasure of teaching one of them: English 243, "Reading Literature, Theory, and Culture." This course emerged for two reasons: our own students' request for more theory-related courses, and our English faculty's concern for offering more courses that introduce students to current developments in theoretical and cultural studies, now established components in the broader field of literary studies.
Literary texts for our fall course included Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Waiting by Ha Jin, The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and American Pastoral by Philip Roth. The most popular of these seemed to be Jhumpa Lahiri, Ben Okri, and Philip Roth. Factors in earning other novels a lower place on the popularity scale apparently were a challenging writing style (House Gun), organizational techniques (English Patient), and complex characterization (Waiting). Besides exploring these novels, we read a variety of theoretical texts, covering marxist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, gender, and subjectivity theories.
In addition to their reading and discussion, students wrote papers in which they combined theoretical insights with literary analysis. They engaged in cultural analysis. Each student also provided classmates with an oral presentation which offered biographical information on our novelists and other cultural texts that intersected with our literary texts. Students' presentation topics included the life of Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, the life of Angela Davis, Cubism and The English Patient, African mythology related to abiku children, the colonial and postcolonial history of Nigeria, women and poverty in India.
We ended the semester with some hilarious skits that dramatized theoretical readings of Philip Roth's American Pastoral. Ozzie, our chair, was in attendance that day; and both he and I laughed so hard our stomachs were sore. You might want to ask one of our male sophomore English majors (W. P.) about his Oscar-winning performance that day as a gay American student who joined the Taliban and came home to tell his outraged, Midwest-normal parents about it (the scenario corresponds to parent-child dynamics in American Pastoral). Although I won't embarrass you by revealing your name, Will, your comic genius needs to be discovered.
New Course in Research
This spring, the English Department is offering a course that we have discussed and planned for years-a lower-division seminar in research. The English Department designed this course to appeal to lower-division students who might be thinking about writing senior honors theses. As the first faculty member to offer English 220: Topics in Research, I began by imagining it as a lower-division undergraduate version of the research seminar every graduate student takes. In my graduate program, we had called such a course "boot camp." Still, my fellow students and I emerged from that experience with a love for research. We had learned to use the basic tools of research and found the experience empowering. I am hoping to empower my students in a similar way this semester.
In designing this course, I wrote the following description:
This course will focus on the theory and practice of research in literary and cultural studies. The course will begin with a researched reading and annotation of a historical novel ( E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime). We will then read and annotate a volume of poetry (Anne Sexton's Transformations). We will also read and research the contexts of a work of cultural theory. These three elements of the course will involve large and small group research and discussion. Then each student, in consultation with the instructor, will develop and explore his or her own research topic. The course will conclude with individual presentations of each research project. Students will be encouraged to find and develop topics that interest them and that also allow them to become familiar with techniques and practices of research in the disciplines of literary studies and cultural studies.
Our new research course is now underway. At this point in the semester, teams of students are still researching and making presentations on historical contexts and allusions from Ragtime. So far, we have had presentations about many of the historical figures Doctorow uses in the novel, such as Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Scott Joplin, Henry Ford, and J. P. Morgan, as well as the ideological and historical backgrounds in which these people were immersed (race relations, the labor movement, roles of women, capitalism/marxism, inventions, explorations, vaudeville, baseball, and more). Our ultimate goal for this part of the project is to create a web site which will annotate the many aspects of the novel.
Meanwhile, students have also begun developing their own research projects. We have been working with reference librarian Molly Ewing in developing strategies, topics, and sources for the work of the class. We have yet to begin annotating Anne Sexton's Transformations (her dark versions of fairy tales).
So far, this course has been a joy to teach. The students make the course fun; their enthusiasm for research is delightful. I look forward to its becoming an important part of our evolving curriculum.
Creative Outcomes for English 283
Two years ago in spring, the English Department asked if I would teach the first installment of the Western Literature in Translation course the following fall. Being the adjunct instructor that I am, I naturally and enthusiastically consented. After the chair (the person, not the piece of furniture) left my office, I began to ponder what I'd just gotten myself into.
As the summer wore on, I chose a textbook (Norton Anthology of World Literature, Vol. 1) and solidified my syllabus for the semester. I decided to employ the philosophy of READ READ READ with the hope that by the time students finished the semester they might have a better appreciation for those "old dead authors/titles" that we English instructors reference but rarely assign, such as Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Marie de France's lais, the Song of Roland, the epic of Gilgamesh, the poetry of Sappho, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Euripides' Medea, some poetry of Catullus, excerpts from the Koran, Homer's Iliad, the Icelandic saga of Thorstein the Staff-Struck, and more.
Some of you may find a list like this problematic, way too much to explore in depth during one semester. You are surely right. But my premise with this class was for exposure and for students to begin building a reading base that they could use to compare, contrast, and discuss thoughtfully and perhaps more critically other texts they read after finishing this class.
With the premise of exposure in mind, I faced another question: students can READ READ READ all the texts in the world, but how, pedagogically, would I help them retain some of the elements and texts they had just been exposed to? In a fit of despair as I gazed at the list of thirty-five students enrolled in the course, I realized that I really didn't want to read thirty-five fifteen-page final papers that compared the ancient Gilgamesh with the medieval Beowulf or other comparable analyses. I could do so, of course. But I wanted a different solution.
Once as an undergraduate, I had painted a picture for a psychology class instead of writing a ten-page paper on some aspect of behavioral psychology. Recalling that episode, it occurred to me that I still remembered the painting, although not a whole lot else, from that introductory psychology class. Based on this realization, I decided to offer an option for a final paper to my 283 students: they could either write a traditional research paper of twelve to fifteen pages or devise a creative project of their choosing based on one or more of the texts we had read in class. Students who chose the creative project would have to present their plan to me at least a month in advance of the due date; then, discussing that plan, we would talk about how the result was to be graded. Only then would they start their project.
The number of students who chose the creative option was amazing, especially since these projects required more time from them than if they had elected to write the more traditional research paper. But when students are really interested in a project or topic, they put serious time into it. Years from now, I hope they remember that.
Since I began offering this option two years ago, I've evaluated a number of astonishing projects as well as a few that I would rather forget. Listed below are some of the more memorable projects:
Another canto in Dante's Inferno, putting twenty-first century people and professors into a new circle of hell (the terza rima was
In planning for these projects, the instructor in me asked, "How do I evaluate them? How do I assess their worth as opposed to the more standard grade awarded to a traditional paper?" Usually students and I came up with three criteria: how well the project turned out (the product), the research that went into it, and why the student did the project. The last step students needed to undertake was a self-evaluation of their projects and an explanation of how well they thought they had done. (I learned that students are very hard on their own work.) Then, after all the work on the project was complete, students presented their projects to the class during scheduled in-class presentation times.
For this type of class, using a creative project seems to work-at least it does for me. If you would like to see samples of some of this student work, feel free to stop by my office (Quad 350A). I love to show them off.
Review of Jayber Crow
I will always be grateful that I was reading Wendell Berry's newest novel, Jayber Crow, when the tragedy of September 11 occurred. Really a fictional autobiography (note the subtitle: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself), the novel gave me an anchor as I swam through the conflicting emotional turmoil of that day and the weeks that followed. Berry, a fervent naturalist whose poetry, fiction, and essays center around ecological themes and issues, has created in this novel a contemporary Thoreau whose Walden is more a point of view than a place.
Although Jayber lives mostly in Port William, Kentucky, and eventually ends up on the outskirts of the town at "the fringe of society, in the wilderness" (305), it is his simple but insightful perspective that is reminiscent of Thoreau in his Walden days. It's not that the novel provoked the escapist in me; rather, it's that Jayber's absolute immersion in the here-and-now gave me a way to focus more acutely on the people and places from which tragedies distract us. Early in his account, Jayber says something that put into words the feelings September 11 evoked in me. His comments are in reference to World War II but could very well apply today: "The war did not make Port William more visible, except to itself; to itself, it became extraordinarily visible. We looked around us, seeing everything as eligible to be lost" (140). This realization does not sour Jayber but makes him, like Thoreau, even more determined to suck the marrow out of life.
After buying an abandoned barber shop in Port William, Jayber settles into the life of the town and most especially its people, truly characters playing out the dramas of small, rural lives moving inevitably but reluctantly through the 50s and 60s. The drama is played out most poignantly in the lives of Athey and Della Keith, who struggle to maintain their farm within the "law of the farm . . . in the balance between crops (including hay and pasture) and livestock" (185). Their daughter Mattie marries Troy Chatham, who views farming as a means of enhancing himself, unwittingly depleting the land and eventually himself. Jayber says of Troy that Troy speaks "as a young man of the modern age coming now into his hour, held back only by the outmoded ways of his elders" (182). What complicates this family and cultural drama is the love that Jayber feels for Mattie, whom he admires from a distance throughout her lifetime, although the two develop an abiding, deep friendship over the final years of her life. When the Health and Sanitation Department demands Jayber install indoor plumbing in his barber shop, he realizes that the unencumbered way of life he so loves is passing away, even in the small town of Port William. At that point he moves out of Port William and into a cabin in the nearby woods, where he lives out the rest of his life.
Certainly, Berry's highly poetic voice soothed my troubled soul during the aftermath of September 11, and his characters, who are full of the local color I have come to expect from Berry, entertained me. But I was aided far more by Jayber's drive to discover the essence of life in the recurring crises, disappointments, disillusionments, and miscalculations which form the substance of his life. His character reminded me that often it is reflection, not action, that we need. In the midst of the high-flying rhetoric and the war mentality that inundated us after September 11, I was fortunate to hear the voice of a character like Jayber, whose wisdom is not in anger or revenge but in embracing the peace and beauty of this world. He says as much toward the end of his life:
Here on the river I have known peace and beauty such as I never knew in any other place. There is always work here that I need
How an English Guy Became a Finance Guy
Tim Radaich '94
What can you do with an English major? The answer, relative to your perspective, is anything, or nothing at all. For what job or position are you qualified? Please allow me to repeat myself: anything, or nothing at all. Stacked up next to a management major ("I already have a job lined up. It's a notch above entry level because of my three internships. In a year I'll be a vice president.") or against a biology major ("I've been accepted to the top Ph.D. program for evolutionary ecology. I'll finish in three years; then I'll start my post-doc."), you may not have a definite career track. But don't think you're without options. "What are my options?" you ask? That's right: anything, or nothing at all.
What you do with your major depends on what you think you can do with it. If you see plenty of options, that's exactly what you have. Don't allow yourself to be pigeonholed into thinking you must "do something" with your major. The fact is that not many people in the real world do. One of my co-workers specialized in horsemanship at CSB. Unless you plan to work as a cowboy or cowgirl, what does horsemanship have to do with getting a job after college? Nothing. And that's the point.
Need another case study? Look no further. In college, I looked at my major as a means to an end, but in hindsight I see it as a laboratory that allowed me to develop a set of skills and tools-skills and tools that I can now employ in almost any environment. But mine isn't an original idea; I had good teachers. I come from a family of four. Not just any old four, but four English majors.
Being the youngest in a family that already boasted three English majors, what else was I going to pursue? Both of my parents studied English with the intention of teaching. My mother (Beverly Radaich, currently working in the CSB/SJU English Department) started out teaching English at the junior high and high school level. My father never did teach but instead became an advertising executive. My older brother (Joe, SJU '93) owns a bar in Minneapolis. (It's called "The Sportsmans Pub." Joe, it either needs an apostrophe, or if plural, a re-engineered spelling and an apostrophe. I know you didn't name it, but as an English major you have a duty to correct it.) Three English majors with three distinct paths showed me how limitless my options could be.
Since starting at West in 1995, I've worked in various parts of the company, from sales to marketing to finance. My current duties involve developing the pricing for and assisting in the negotiation of online legal research contracts for West's customers. I also analyze and report on the resulting agreements. Using financial data and marketing strategies, I create the proposals that help us negotiate agreements that meet the needs of both West and our customers.
In a way it makes no sense that as an English major I hold such a numbers- and strategy-oriented job. Then again, it makes all the sense in the world. What we learn as English majors at CSB/SJU are these: to understand ideas, to develop ideas and to express them, and to think, speak, and write clearly. Ideas make the world go around. They also make money. Your ability to understand and express them effectively is the key to your future. That's what you can do with an English major.
The Write Choice
Jeanne M. Cavanagh Thompson '88
"Can anyone tell me the difference between the words woo and woe? As I pose this question to my second semester ESL 4 class (English as a Second Language) on a Monday morning, I am again surprised by the intense concentration exhibited by my multicultural students. I quickly scan the sea of faces and the nations represented: China, Korea, Mexico, The Philippines, Iran, Venezuela, Chile, and more.
My students diligently look up the words in their electronic bilingual dictionaries or rack their brains trying to remember the vocabulary lesson we had on Friday morning. Suddenly, a hand shoots into the air. "Doesn't woo mean to date somebody, and woe mean very sad?" I respond happily, "Excellent Kim-ya. You remembered them both correctly. Would anyone like to recap the story of Romeo and Juliet for us? Take us up to the point where we stopped on Friday." Thus begins a typical day for me as an ESL/English teacher in a high school in San Diego, where I now work and live.
After graduating from St. Ben's in May of 1988 and completing my student teaching experience, I decided to look for work in warmer climates. I found a job as an eighth grade English teacher at Del Dios Middle School in Escondido, California, about twenty-five miles northeast of downtown San Diego. While at the middle school, I worked with regular education students and was introduced to second language (ESL) students for the first time. Most of the students in Escondido were Hispanic, but I had several Asian students too. I quickly grew to appreciate the hard work, motivation, and drive that many second-language students have as they struggle to learn the difficult language of English. I was grateful for my excellent English courses at CSB/SJU and my teacher training courses, and I was extremely thankful for my grammar training.
During my time at Mt. Carmel, I have taught ESL and English classes. I have also had a wonderful opportunity to work as a staff development coordinator, planning professional training days and in-service experiences for teachers to grow in the teaching field. I used my leadership skills, ability to communicate clearly in writing and speaking, and other English skills to present material to my staff.
Through these years I've used the concepts gained from my years at CSB/SJU in many ways. I have had to understand the internal structure of English grammar and be able to explain it in plain English to second-language as well as regular English students. I have read many pieces of literature and expository text and facilitated the learning of students as they make sense of what they read. I have helped students learn how to plan an essay and become proficient writers. I have also helped students become more confident in their speaking and listening skills, all areas that I built up at St. Ben's and St. John's.
My newest endeavor is moving to the new high school being built in our district. I am a member of the research and development team for Westview, a state-of-the-art high school that will open in fall 2002. I will be the ESL Coordinator/Chairperson and possibly the staff development coordinator there next year. I am truly exited about this next challenge. Being an English major has opened so many doors for me that I am thankful every day for my decision to major in English. I made the "write" choice!