Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Story

Attending to the Narrative Environment
     The importance of story in the Heritage Project

School comes alive when the work students are doing makes sense to them--in other words, when the story of school
fits the the personal story of their lives. Heritage projects at their best help young people become self-consciously part of that local history, adding their stories and their work to its legacy. Their presentations can become a permanent part of the town’s archives, saved forever in the local museum, where it can be added to presentations done by students in earlier years, and where other student research will be added in future years. 

Quests sometimes fail, are abandoned or dissipated into distractions; and human lives may in all these ways also fail. But the only criteria for success or failure in a human life as a whole are the criteria of success or failure in a narrated or to-be-narrated quest.
Alasdair MacIntyre

Reality is a story–not just a tale that is told but a story that is really so.

Robert P. Roth


Connecting with students means inviting them into a story

School comes alive when the work students are doing makes sense to them--in other words, when the story of school
fits the the personal story of their lives.

It helps when teachers remember--in spite of directives from afar--that students are particular people living in a particular place, and that the history of that place has everything to do with who they are and what their prospects are.

Heritage projects at their best help young people become self-consciously part of that local history, adding their stories and their work to its legacy. Their presentations can become a permanent part of the town’s archives, saved forever in the local museum, where it can be added to presentations done by students in earlier years, and where other student research will be added in future years.

Marsha, a blond girl from Libby with interested eyes, once told me that what she liked most about the Heritage Project was the team research and the friendships that were formed. Their research involved visiting libraries, interviewing people, and going to archives. While I ate a BLT she told me things she had learned, her stories of searching and finding.

Our lives have a narrative structure, and we not only learn in narrative, but, as Barbara Olsen said, we also dream, plan, hate, love, fear, flirt, teach, gossip, regret, recover, taunt and woo in narrative. 

MORE...


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Writing for the Web
     Getting to the real stuff

When writing for the web, it’s good to keep in mind that the complex interplay between decisions individual persons make about their voices and the decisions others make about what to pay attention to, and the sort of places that result. Each of us is reponsible for what we say--the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content--and each of us is also responsible for what we listen to. On the internet, sites that get traffic grow and are imitated, while those that get no traffic dwindle away.

Mark Bernstein gives advice on writing for the web that goes beyond the usual details about correctness and brevity to touch on the deeper reasons people write:

Bad personal sites bore us by telling us about trivial events and casual encounters about which we have no reason to care. Don’t tell us what happened: tell us why it matters. Don’t tell us your opinion: tell us why the question is important.

If you don’t really care, don’t write. If you are a student and everybody is talking about exams and papers and you simply don’t care, let it be. If your job bores you, it will bore us. (If you despise your job with a rich, enduring passion, that’s another thing entirely!) Write for yourself; you are, in the end, your most important reader.

He talks about friends, enemies, courage and honesty. He gets into the real terrain of writing, an exhilarating place where sentence by sentence we decide how we relate to other people and who we are. He does this by offering some good and simple insights into what sort of person is worth becoming. These are the issues writing teachers have in mind when they talk about voice.

Each of us is responsible for what we say--the tone and the intent as well as the prosaic content--and each of us is also responsible for what we listen to. The internet makes vivid the complex interplay between decisions individual persons make about their voices and the decisions others make about what to pay attention to, and the sort of places that result. On the internet, sites that get traffic grow and are imitated, while those that get no traffic dwindle away.

The world has always worked that way. Different communities practice different virtues, have different characters, and move toward different destinies. These differences are created by the things people think and say, and the actions that follow. At the same time, what people think and say are influenced by what the community around them seems to approve or disapprove.

I think it would be good if writing teachers kept pointing out to young people that through what we write about (and talk about and think about) we are constantly participating in a process of self-creation, that the outcome of this process is not predetermined (we are free), and that the outcome matters (things could turn out very good, but they could also turn out very, very bad).

These are guidelines that lead to the sorts of places I prefer:

1. Be honest (rather than merely fashionable).
2. Be accurate (reality is fabulous).
3. Be nice (people are tender and most mistakes they make can safely be ignored).
4. Be cautious about revealing intimate details (there are bad people out there). 


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Sense of place as an aspect of mind
     Changing geographies of possibility

When the old Salish got horses, their sense of place changed. Their minds were re-shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

For centuries the Salish who lived where I live now had organized their lives as traditional mountain folk do, moving through a landscape mosaic constantly shifting in time. In late winter, grizzly bears came out of caves in the high country, ravenous and searching the lower slopes for winter-killed carrion. In early spring, camas ripened in valley bottoms and sunflowers bloomed on south slopes. In mid summer, huckleberries ripened on foothills in the mottled light of ponderosa stands. And as summer days lengthened, antelope gathered into large herds, posting sentries and grazing on the golden grass. As the air became colder, bull elk became belligerent and reckless, descending from high ridges, bellowing challenges.

These rhythms and movements were aspects of mind for the old Salish.

When they got their first horses around 1730, their sense of place was transformed. They began to leave the mountain valleys to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains around the headwaters of the Missouri. They reorganized their lives around a spring hunt and a fall hunt. They adopted the portable teepees of the nomadic tribes. They became skilled warriors, able to hold their own on the contested plains. They became horsemen and breeders of horses sought by other tribes.

They lived in a new place, with new opportunities and dangers. They told their children new stories that included insights into horses, buffalo and the enemy Blackfeet. Their minds were shaped by a larger geography of possibility.

In changing the way they related to space, they changed their minds. 


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What we owe the people of the past
     Eating lunch in Astoria, Oregon

We live well on gifts from the past--our enormous infrastructure of systems and designs. Do we owe the people who prepared these gifts for us anything? Yes. We owe them understanding.

Some places in Montana make it clear that we have been invaded. The mansions sprawling across the mountains at Big Sky, the gates of the Stock Farm in Hamilton. Though I can imagine people who build 23,000 square foot houses with Olympic swimming pools and shooting ranges that they will inhabit only occasionally, during a golf tournament maybe, I have no real way to check what I imagine against reality.

Already the West is filled with places that locals have lost. Sun River, Aspen, Whitefish. Visiting such places, I already feel myself becoming a part of the past, part of something that is being lost.

My home landscape becomes a backdrop for meals enjoyed by strangers. The place I live along Mission Creek on the Flathead Reservation was once a camping spot shared by tribal people now long gone. Their descendents are more like me than like them. In some cases (my grandchildren) their descendents are also my descendents. And in some ways, I feel closer to them than to these newcomers.

What do new arrivals owe those who were here before?

I wondered about that over a bowl of clam chowder at the Cannery Café in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. I had spent the day exploring the lower Columbia, made sad by how much had been lost. I had intended to meet a friend for lunch, but a family emergency called her away, and being alone intensified my sense of transience, walking with a camera along the sandy beaches of a vast river.

The warehouses along the river, faced with brilliant signs bearing the names of large Japanese corporations, seemed small recompense for vanished salmon and vanished people, who once moved together in the rhythms of camping, fishing, and cooking.

The cafe itself was built on the site of one of the salmon canneries that once gave Astoria its reason for being. It was clean and gentrified, with good views of the harbor and seals swimming near the docks. Photos of the canneries, and the people who worked there, hung on the walls.

I had just come from the museum with my notebook and was enjoying a meal with the ocean and seals as a backdrop. It was very good.

I was acutely aware that the people who had worked the cannery, or fished the river, didn’t have it nearly so good. Their lives were spent in struggle for food and shelter. I knew enough of trudging to work in cold dawn, of hands rubbed raw by labor, and of a clock moving ever so slowly, measuring out my endurance against tasks that could never been done, to at least imagine my kinship with those haggard-looking people staring out at me from tastefully framed sepia photos.

I was also aware that it was their struggle, the struggle of earlier generations, that had freed me from a similar struggle. Food and shelter now come easily because of the stored wealth of infrastructure and design that is my heritage. I live well on the gifts of the past made by those who lived there.

Now, I have time for other struggles. It seems to me that one thing I owe all those people, the strange creatures staring at me from from lives that are so hard to imagine, is understanding. To the extent that I can feel what they felt, sense what they feared, and appreciate again what gave them joy, I think I can still help them. What we all want is to be recognized, and listened to, and empathized with. I can give them that.

Sometimes, listening to old-timers talk about moments far in the past, I sense how it is that moments of time do not ever really end. The people of the past are gone, but they are not gone away, just as the children we ourselves once were are gone but not gone away. Time is haunted.

At the end, we see what the world always was: a story just beginning.


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Place and narratable moments
     Longing for a sense of place

The phrase “sense of place” has migrated to the commercial world, where it is linked to the decor of kiosks and fast food counters. But it became popular because of a longing people have for narratable moments--events that have meaning, and that we cannot recall as separate from the places they occurred. It is those meaningful events, rather than the geographic spaces that evoke them, that are of human importance.

If you land at JFK airport and come through Terminal 8 or 9 you may notice that the 60 or so shops – food courts, kiosks, newsstands, duty-free stores, etc., etc. – aren’t quite the same as those in, say, New Orleans or San Francisco. You see, these shops are “visually related? to each other through design elements inspired by the 1930s New York streetscape.

This provides a “sense of place,? the designer said. So between the taxi lanes and the portable tunnels to climb aboard planes, this corridor is given the atmosphere of a recognizable time and place. Though the terminal as a whole is designed to sort us and move us like so many widgets past uniforms and signs through some total administrative state of loudspeakers and no smoking, the murals, signs and plastic cutouts give us a feeling of ease as we negotiate the minimum security nowhere in which we have locked ourselves. This noisy chute to anywhere offers the charm of a custom retail environment without sacrificing the comfort of familiar brands.

The plan worked. The decor increased per passenger spending by fifty percent, the designer said. This, the designer said, was because it gave passengers a sense of place.

A sense of place. Not the real thing, I suppose, but a sense of it like the after image of a blown out candle. A sense of place haunts the Pizza Hut, evoked by wallpaper images of nineteenth century London.

With such thoughts in my mind, I hesitated when an editor called and asked me to write a piece on “teaching and a sense of place.?

“Let me think about it.”

In most ways I don’t mind the designer thinking about how to make more people spend more money. That certainly doesn’t make her worse than me or my friends and family. Most of the time I don’t do anything more ennobling than turning my time and skill to what pays. And really, the New York streetscape is an improvement over those old Soviet cafeterias designed by political appointees who didn’t care what sort of feelings a space gives us.

Still, I suspected that an editor asking for a piece on “sense of place? was expecting something more profound than marketing. Her audience was no doubt hankering after something more authentic than moods evoked by plastic signage. We use “authentic? much as the optimists before World War I used “progressive,? as an all-purpose term of praise, part accolade and part prayer.

No doubt the editor thought I was a natural to write about a sense of place since I still live in the western Montana town where I grew up – a little place of about a thousand people nestled at bottom of the west slope of the Mission Range in the Northern Rockies. Surely one who has stayed in place could write authentically about place.

As I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my 21-month old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me.

“Campin?? he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmellow. He had associated the “camping? he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him.

“Campin? had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The “place? we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson. His mother had gone there with my wife and me. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass by that little place on Wounded Buck Creek without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road.

But it had become a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place but what had happened there that he wanted.

In a word, it was story that mattered. Not a story we have told but the story we have lived.

There are significant dangers in misunderstanding what it is that one wants. I worry that sometimes people who are pursuing a sense of place are not clear about what they want. All our airports and shopping districts might get prettier and we might be just as lonely, just as full of longing.

What we want are stories and hugs.


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Writing: Creative or Discursive?
     How do we think?

College writing teacher Tina Blue believes that students can best learn to be rational by practicing discursive writing. She points out, correctly, that humans aren’t naturally rational but that they “have the capacity to learn how to reason.”

“Creative writing"--writing focused on self-revelation and relying on personal experience rather than on developing organized and supported thoughts--is not nearly so useful, she says. In ”Why Students Should Have to Learn How to Write Discursive Essays” she observes that “just as the skilled athlete has, through diligent effort and application, honed physical capacities that are inherent but not well developed in most human beings, so the skilled thinker has studied and trained himself to apply mental skills in a manner beyond the reach of most untrained minds.”

She speaks from within the classical liberal tradition, arguing that “the function of training in discursive writing is to enable the student to learn the habits and techniques of discursive thought, not to provide him with an outlet for expressing his feelings.”

I agree with this without believing that it’s the whole story. I almost agree with her when she says that “discursive writing is a process which exercises both simultaneously and sequentially all of the mental skills needed for learning new information and for thinking deeply and carefully about important or difficult ideas: observation, analysis, classification, analogy, synthesis, verbalization, and memory.” My disagreement is that I think she neglects to mention the most powerful mental skill we need to learn new information and think deeply: the power of making metaphors. It is something more than skill with analogies. More about that later.

Thomas F. Bertonneau makes a similar argument in The Montana Professor. He goes further than Blue in that he links the decline in the teaching of discursive writing to the rise of political views that don’t fare well in the bright lights of critical thought:

Why then do those educators not remediate their students? Because the power of analysis, the ambit of an adult vocabulary, the salvation implicit in a skill at concepts--all of this represents the bourgeois consciousness that the “cutting edge” wishes to suppress in favor of sub-proletarian authenticity. The creation of this huge class of matriculants and graduates who have been led, unwittingly, into the state of epistemological correctness represents the radical revenge against the civilized order perpetrated by would-be revolutionaries who spurn any demand not their own. Affective agendas, like those of multiculturalism, feminism, and “sensitivity,” stand to gain in an environment from which ratiocination has been expelled. Where raw emotion has been tamed by the power of reason, such movements must answer to criticism, a confrontation that their adherents seek assiduously to avoid.

Bertonneau develops his argument more thoroughly than does Blue by analyzing samples of student writing that provide insights into how their minds work. These analyses alone are worth the time it takes to read his article. After tracing the students’ thought through their essays, Bertonneau concludes that “in situations outside those of their day-to-day social activities, these students face the blooming, buzzing confusion which the raw stuff of existence is supposed to be, according to one school of philosophy.” Because they are incapable of rigorous thought themselves, they are unaware that rigorous thought exists and that others do engage in it. “Pandered to and propagandized for years by advocates of the postmodern project, the students ‘know’ that the important things are (1) their own uniqueness and (2) the diversity of the collegial milieu.” In other words, they know what they have been repeatedly told.

Though I don’t disagree with either writer’s points about discursive writing, their arguments leave me wanting more. This is because there is much more to “creative writing” than Blue suggests. The best imaginative writers use the mental powers Blue and Bertonneau champion, and more.

In particular, they work with metaphor and kindred powers of mind. Not metaphor as simple figurative speech--"her eyes were forest pools"--but metaphor as a fundamental power of human thought, a way of thinking that allows us to contemplate something in one conceptual domain, like culture, by projecting concepts from a different domain, like geography:

. . .let’s parabolically imagine concepts as countries. These countries are often distinguished from each other by borders that appear as clear, natural divisions, like rivers or mountain ranges. Sometimes they are divided by unmapped wastelands, or by swampy and disputed marshes. Some are islands, with the sea such an obvious natural boundary that no one even thinks to question it. Over on the continent of mathematics, borders are laid out in straight, stipulated grids, which at least makes foreign relations tidy. Concept-countries have centers of life, major cities and capitals. The country of Art, which interests me especially, has many, some inhabited by the likes of Homer, Lady Murasaki, and Shakespeare, while in others are to be found Praxiteles, Bernini, and Rodin. There are less powerful towns as well, and on the frontier you can find dusty settlements of refugees from the nearby country of Craft. Some cynics claim these illegals are nothing more than economic refugees who ought to be sent home. At a border post, Marcel Duchamp argues with the guards. They are confused whether to let him in, while he laughs, telling them their post is not at the border at all, but a hundred miles inside it.  Denis Dutton

Dutton is here drawing on the work of Mark Turner.  What he points out in his mixing of concepts from the world of ideas with those from the world of geography is that it is both impossible and instantly intelligible. Our ability to think in this way, mixing features of one ”mental space” with features from another, is the source of our ability to innovate, to apply lessons learned to new situations, and, at bottom, to think as humans.

Literary writers more than any other group have explored and developed the imaginative uses of mental spaces that allow us to think about “things” that are on the border of being impossible to render in ratiocinated prose. All students should be invited to study and contemplate their work, ranging from the poetry of Yeats to the travel writing of Tim Cahill. Part of that study and contemplation, most especially for students who choose it, should include attempting similar writing themselves, including poetry, fiction, and newer genres such as narrative journalism.

Still, I would agree that the focus of writing instruction in required courses should be discursive prose. Discursive prose can be taught systematically, anyone can learn it, and it is used regularly by all who do learn it. Its powers are enormous and eminently teachable. Though I also believe there are more powerful ways of writing, they are harder to learn and much harder to teach.


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