Monday, February 20, 2023

February 20, We Know Our Own Lives Expertly: a conversation with Hilary Plum

An account of care, labor, illness, friendship, professionalization, and political struggle, Hole Studies (Fonograf, 2022) explores radical possibilities. Over four essays, Hilary Plum describes resistance and reinvention in our social lives and our aesthetic practice. The work touches on, among many other subjects, Sinéad O’Connor’s 1992 destruction of the Pope’s image on SNL; the corrosive psychology of whiteness; precarity in academic and service work; the rejection of “necropolitics” in struggles for freedom and humanity; the work of teaching; and the author’s own experience of chronic neurological illness. Hole Studies is a gorgeous look at the possibilities of authentic encounter—in art, in protest, and relationships—and it’s one of the richest, most humane books you’ll read this year. Plum is a friend; we recorded this conversation via Zoom between meetings in October 2022, a few days before Hole Studies was published by Fonograf Editions.

Hilary Plum is the author of several books, including the essay collection Hole Studies (Fonograf Editions, 2022), the novel Strawberry Fields (Fence, 2018), and the work of nonfiction Watchfires (Rescue Press, 2016), which won the GLCA New Writers Award. A collection of poetry, Excisions, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023. She teaches at Cleveland State University and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press. Recent work has appeared in Astra, Granta, American Poetry Review, Fence, Cleveland Review of Books, and elsewhere.

Jay Aquinas Thompson (he/they) is a poet, essayist, and teacher; they're the author of The Resurrection Appearances: a Daybook, forthcoming from Gold Line, and they have recent or forthcoming work in Neon Door, Adroit, Guesthouse, and Poetry Northwest, where they're a contributing editor. A ’21-’22 Best of the Net nominee, they’ve also been awarded grants and fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the Community of Writers, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. They live with their child in Washington state, where they teach creative writing to public school students and incarcerated women.


JT: I’ve been reading Fred Moten lately and I wrote down the sentence, “unrestricted sociality as an alternative to academic space.” I’m thinking about how Hole Studies attends to problems of work—the demoralizing, constant precarity; the ruthless, secretive, smiley competition in the academic world; and the sort of devaluation and adjunctification of all different kinds of labor. But the thing in the book that I wanted to begin from, that represents one alternative to that, is friendship. What role do certain conversations, or the kind of ongoing relational tug back and forth of care and ongoingness or abiding trust, play in your process as you write? Do you imagine a particular friend as a reader? Does a particular conversation or relationship persist as a goad when you’re working? Or is your writing something much more solitary than that?

HP: I definitely am always picturing friends when I’m writing. That’s who I’m writing for. I want you to read it, I want Caryl Pagel to read it; there’s always a small number of people who I am thinking about and writing toward, thinking about things that they’ve said and ideas they’ve had. And sometimes I give the piece to those people and respond to their critiques and comments and their further ideas. It’s just a handful of people, and who they are might change a little project by project depending.

And then there are future friends! It doesn’t have to be about whether you would have a personal connection with this thinker. It’s like, your work would be friends.

I love that thought from Moten. But also, sometimes when you’re looking at, I mean, the problems of academia—its restriction of sociality and friendship and its horrible competition and commitment to a really lethal idea of meritocracy, while meanwhile, it’s just being economically hollowed out—it’s funny, because when you step outside of it, you’re like, oh, this happens in other spaces too, small press spaces or poetry community spaces or among activists. All sorts of spaces have similar hierarchical problems. They aren’t formalized in the way that a workplace’s hierarchies are formalized or disciplined, but even in spaces that are more purely social, you can see those same dynamics, where people are competing with each other instead of feeling free or welcome to collaborate or feeling called into the generosity of collaboration. It’s an academia problem that is also a beyond-academia problem.

JT: Given the persistence of that sort of atomized, competitive, economically hollow, lethal asociality pervading so many kinds of communities and so many different forms of experience, can you say a little more about this future friend or a future reader you imagine? Is there something of the aspirational projection which you write about elsewhere in the book, around the experience of participating in a protest? Or is the aspiration more like, May, in the better world, this book find exactly the person it needs?

HP: Yeah. I mean, the best version of it is someone that you admire, whose work you admire, also might find your work useful or want to read it. So maybe that’s the future friend.

But also, even as all of this shit is happening in academia, the work of teaching remains very, very hopeful. Our students are looking for those future readers, and they’re being those readers for each other, and you can be that kind of reader for them, when you try to really be with them in whatever they’re working on, sometimes to a very deep degree. The belief in the future friend is also about feeling hopeful enough to believe in something, in some kind of relationship or possibility that you don’t know about yet. And when you’re teaching something like writing, you’re witnessing that hope in people who want to write. And you’re trying to sustain that hope, which is that their writing is going to be able to do something that they don’t know about yet, or to connect with people who might then become themselves in a new way.

So I think part of it—the part that’s maybe most like attending a protest—is that, like, writing something for your friends or writing something for the people who are immediately around you that you’re in some kind of community with, when it’s in the best sense, is also writing for that possibility, that future whatever, that unknown something. Our friends are the people who make you believe in that, or who make that seem possible. Right? So you’re never just writing for your friends. It’s more that writing for them allows you to together imagine something that’s beyond that, too—that’s larger than that.

JT: This makes me think of a subtle harmony I was aware of in the book: the comparison between the beloved community, unknowable but apprehended in the rebellious sociality of a protest, and the book’s description of a poem as “a past and future land.” You say that, as readers, “we’re not there, but we’re practicing being there.” The spiritual exercises that works of literature demand of us—Fady Joudah telling American readers to repeat the sentence, “the Arab is beautiful”; Peter Dimock urging his readers to “live in the present moment within a frame of redemptive, universal history”—are things that we rarely literally live out. But we still allow ourselves to be recognized by those demands, and perhaps altered in some way. Likewise at the protest, you write that “everyone’s trying to say what they could mean together,” even if it’s imperfect, even if it’s fragile, even if it’s constantly under threat and surveillance.

HP: The thing about protests is that they feel so powerful and important to be at, but they also feel so futile. And, like, you’ve gone to a million of them. The line you quote from the book—“everyone’s trying to say what they could mean together”—is trying to get at the hope that, in another context, or given a little more space, or having seized a little more space or freedom or possibility, we could figure out what the next thing to say was. Right now, everything the protest is saying is reactionary, right? It’s in response to whatever’s happening, to which our reply is a huge no, a sort of gut refusal.

So that means we can’t yet say how everyone would get to talk to each other and be together in this other possible future space. But, at the protest, you’re also practicing toward that right now, right? Like, you are together right now doing something, and listening to each other.

In the book I’m discussing a protest on behalf of Palestinian liberation and against the Israeli assault on Gaza in May 2021. I quote a line by Mahmoud Darwish, in translation, “the land of my poem is green and high.” Darwish’s work and its relationship to the Palestinian liberation struggle gives its own context, obviously, of the poem standing in for the land, but also not being the land: marking the land that’s not there, but also serving as a place for people to be together and for a memory that’s looking toward the future. And that’s something a lot of people have written about, who are not me and are better writers, readers, and scholars of Palestinian literature than I am. In terms of scholarship in English, there’s Jeffrey Sachs’s book called Iterations of Loss, about Darwish particularly and about poetry as the naming of loss. The poem is the land and the land is beautiful and it’s there, and he’s saying, this is where my poem came from and it’s where my poem is when you read it.

JT: The way that you’re threading together questions of glimpsed social possibilities and the aspirations of literature makes me want to come back to the way that you write about form, literary form, in the book. You talk about the dread of being taken as an expert in any content you include; you say something like, Everything I know about this is already in the book. Please don’t treat me as an expert in this topic. And instead, what you assert is that “form is a means to get at the possibilities of form.” So my question is, what possibilities of form, and hence content, did these essays open up for you, either in their own composition, or in the writing you’re doing now that Hole Studies is done?

HP: In US literature, we’re not in a moment that is paying a ton of attention to form. There’s not a lot of discussion or big fights about aesthetics, the kind of fights that have characterized other moments, nor the sense that aesthetics are ideology, nor that people are doing their politics in their aesthetics; it’s more like they’re doing their politics in their content. And in the book I talk about some of my concerns with this disregard for form, and these concerns are familiar critiques of social media, maybe the main place where form is made invisible and content is king: that fighting online is a distraction, and that there’s a kind of hypocrisy that’s easy to perform there, where people can say anything but it’s divorced from their own life. That mode is very performative, and there’s only certain kinds of thinking that you can do in its form, and a lot of kinds of thinking are left out of it, which you might fear are being degraded or excluded by the dominance of these types of media and interaction.

For a lot of literary writers, maybe especially in the essay form, that question of what we’re “expert” in feels really present all the time: you think, OK, I guess I’m an expert in my life, but is that interesting? Actually, I feel largely like I don’t know a lot about my life! What context do I put it in? What are the important features of it to include? Every time you make a choice in relation to that, you are having politics about it. And those are all basically formal questions.

What I got really interested in was—and this is in the book in different places—how people live or experience their jobs, and what they’re able to say about what their job is to them, or what they think it is in the world, or why and how they do it. Which is the thing that you want to know about everyone’s job, but not the thing you can ever make them tell you. It’s a hard thing to find language for. In the book it appears as a fight I was having with law students who didn’t want to connect the legal work that they were learning to do with thoughts people might have about society and the world, which is understandable, but also, you know, seemed very alienating and as though professionalization was a training in alienation or training in not seeing what role your work is playing in society.

This is also something one thinks about as a teacher and editor and publisher: to ask, What am I reproducing? That question shows up in the book’s first essay, “Work, or the Swet Shop Boys,” thinking about the politics of English: what English am I reproducing? What am I enforcing when I become a professional in the language of English, a hegemonic language?

JT: How does this tie back to questions of expertise?

HP: What I was trying to think about in the book was, okay, what thoughts can I have about literature and experiences of literature and music and pop culture detritus that are not going to be expert thoughts, but will still be worth having? Even the book’s thoughts on literature—there’s an essay on the range of literature about the Iraq war, it’s mostly on work written in English, but the essay is not a scholarly project, you couldn’t publish it as scholarship, et cetera. It’s a different thing.

I also write about music that I was listening to, without being someone who really knows anything about music or is very good at listening to it. And there’s YouTube shit: watching without actually knowing a full context—you could take any YouTube clip and build out a context that you could study, so that you would understand better where it was coming from and you could read it better. But in fact, in our life, we’re not doing that. So that’s the kind of reception and thinking that I was interested in. Even for people who have a lot of expertise, and spend a lot of time really trying to think, a lot of your day is not that. You’re receiving all sorts of things and you’re synthesizing them and you’re having a thought about them and you’re living your life and you’re feeling feelings and you’re making connections between the things that you know a lot about and these other things that exist, or that people say to you, or that interrupted you, or surprised you, or whatever.

And so the book was trying to get at that realm of thinking, which I think literature is a good discipline for getting at. It’s the everyday being in the world, a feeling, thinking, responding, relating kind of existence. It can be theorized in a bunch of ways, but we’re not usually theorizing as we do it. You know what I mean? So that was what I was interested in. And the essay form, I think, is a good way of doing that, because you can braid, you can move among subjects, you can do more critical work and more emotional work and more storytelling work, all next to each other. Nothing can reproduce the stream of everyday thought, if that’s what anyone was trying to do, but this kind of essay is closer to that. It’s bringing your different modes of thinking and responding and observing in together rather than having a single, more established form that you’re doing it all in. So I like the essay as a form for that. I like how it can move between something personal and a claim that you’re making about something else, some kind of research you’re doing and also your reaction to it.

My arguments about form, I think, are in particular about the radical possibilities of form. If you can find a form that lets you think in a new way or make new connections, lets you synthesize things that had seemed disparate or at odds, or that can help people understand each other, then that isn’t just an illumination about whatever your subject was, right? It’s an illumination about how it’s possible to do that: to get somewhere new, understand something newly. And so you might be able to continue doing that, continue making discoveries. I think I say in the book, new possibilities of form are a way to get at new content. That is what I was arguing or feeling.

And also there’s something very dignifying and sustaining about thinking that a dumb obsession you had might become a real thought, and actually could connect to something larger—like, the first essay in that book is really just about a hip-hop group that I started listening to at a boring job. And so you think: okay, but could this stray interest in this thing mean something? Can you get it to say something to you? And can you then say something back to it and to the world? And that’s very life-affirming! Or to be like, God, I’ve really watched this one Sinéad O’Connor YouTube five times for no reason, and it’s long, 30 minutes long, why? And then you say, okay, why don’t you just try to say why? And then you’ll find out why, and you’ll also find out something else. If you give it more, it’ll give you more and you can make something together. So I think that a form that takes things seriously, but also tries to open a door with its subjects, is what I was looking for in that book.

Also, I was wanting to write about work, all the jobs that we have—which I think everyone should write about, but they’re probably too tired.

JT: What struck me when I was hearing your response is the way that you use words like dignity and sustenance, because one of the things I found so moving about Hole Studies is the way that it pursues, not authority in any of its subjects that it describes—not that that was anything but an illusion in the world of any essay—but rather a form where unexpected moral truths can break through, fellow feeling can break through, and then maybe we can refuse despair.

And I’m struck too by the way you talk also about certain ugly or racist thoughts. You said, It feels like when I think these thoughts, I’m reproducing something. I could see how I just thought a stereotype, a cultural or social virus, that exists in endless forms outside us and is constantly reproducing itself through us. And I see Hole Studies, perhaps in response to that, scrupulously weighing its conclusions or assertions, testing assumptions, rigorously examining them. So I wonder if you see a connection between the deliberateness and the sensitivity with which the book pursues its conclusions and the horrible infectiousness of certain kind of social contagions.

HP: Yes, the evil of memes! The memeing of evil! One project in my writing is to recognize that things can feel intimate without being in fact individual—to relieve us of the pressures of being an individual. And that means, in terms of thinking a horrible thought, it’s not your thought. You’re a vessel that’s vulnerable to thinking. And that, I think, helps you deal with those thoughts, because instead of shame and hiding, you can witness the thought more accurately and be responsible for it without being caught up. And, like, this isn’t a story about you. It’s a story about that thought and the harm it can do. That recognition seems useful to me and also more accurate.

And I come to this having benefited from the sort of gift that no one wants—having had both a mental illness and a neurological illness. Through those experiences you find that you really can’t actually trust your thoughts. Your thoughts aren’t really reliable. Even having something as common as anorexia, which I had when I was young, 13 to 15 or 16, you know, the thinking of that disorder is yours. Like, you are really, really thinking it; in fact, it’s all that you think about. But it’s also quite common. You’re really shockingly unoriginal; it’s a deeply derivative art. So that in itself was kind of humbling. And I think this is also common: I would never have labeled or understood what I was doing as anorexia; at the point at which I could understand it as anorexia, I was already well into recovering from it, because I hadn’t had that ability to identify it and give it language before that point. And then I was really shocked that something that felt so personal to me—like, it arose directly out of my life, and it was thoughts that I had, that I was thinking about myself and people around me, it was something I was doing day in and day out—was actually common. I was an adolescent. We have a lot of thoughts like that when we’re adolescent, where we’re like, What? Other people are people? But the insight remains with you. And it’s sort of a relief.

I also have a chronic neurological illness, and there’s whole sets of thoughts that come as part of that, as symptoms, and they’re not reliable; you can’t trust them. They’re bad. They’re just bad thoughts. I mean, they both feel bad, and they’re just shitty. You can’t, like, do anything with them. So I think that that’s helpful, because it means that you have a little skepticism toward yourself, and also you have a little mercy, you know what I mean? Someone thinking something isn’t really about them. It’s happening to them, but it’s not about them. It depends what you do with it. I think some of the skepticism and scrupulousness you see in my writing probably arises out of that experience of unreliability or feeling like, OK, if I have a thought, I’ve got to test it, take it for a ride. And also I would say that it feels like an ethical approach, because if you keep giving an account of your thought, and why you’re having it, and why you’re committing to it, and why you’re staying committed to it, that feels more truthful, and like a better basis for relationship with other people, rather than just asserting it.

I can also get into problems of ambivalence—sometimes I have felt like I didn’t say something as fully and crisply as I wish I had, because I was doing that more scrupulating work, you know, or making a lot of space for people who might be coming in a different place. And later I thought, Hilary, you should have just given your opinion, and maybe what you did was a little chickenshit even though you thought it was a good practice. So there are problems like that, too.

But some of those stylistic choices are trying to practice giving an account of who you are, and as much as you can see about why, and how the world shapes your thinking. If you can try to witness your thinking as much as you can, you can at least give an account of it and say, I am thinking this, and I think it’s for reasons like this, I’m going to try to do this with it, for these reasons. The more you can give that meta-account as you’re doing something, maybe the more you can resist certain kinds of pressure and reproduction of rote connections or stereotypes or erasures that exist in the thinking around us. It’s not perfect, but to me, those are practices that would help you offer something.

JT: Yes. It would give you a ground from which a praxis could start, a way of self-understanding that could lead one to a certain kind of action in the world, or to ways of being together.

HP: Yeah. Well said. [laughs]

JT: There’s a Peter Dimock quote, in his novel George Anderson—I thought of this, too, when I was reading your book. He writes, Within structures of complicity, reciprocity must be improvised moment to moment each day. This is made difficult by the pleasures and rewards of benefiting from atrocity.

HP: Yeah! Exactly!

JT: In Dimock’s quote I saw a similar kind of intention to what I see in Hole Studies, to be both morally penetrating and scrupulously self-aware. I think of that refusal to gaslight ourselves that you talk about when you write about the sociology of people seeking abortions. You write, “We know our own lives expertly. We know the forces acting on us.” There is this desire in the book to scrupulously examine one’s own thoughts, but not undermine one’s own sense of authority about one’s own life or one’s own moral commitments, that I find really ennobling.

HP: That’s nice! You should be ennobled! I want people to feel that.

JT: Do you think you changed over the course of thinking through this book, over the course of drafting it, over the course of editing it? Who are you now that Hole Studies is done?

Yeah, I do think I changed. I feel more confident and more middle-aged. And I spent a lot of time walking around—this was last year when I was turning forty—saying, You’re a forty-year-old English teacher in Cleveland, and feeling OK about whatever romcom that was part of. And one thing that gave me confidence, of course, as I talk about in the book, is that I got a job that supported my work better, and that helps. But I also stopped feeling so insecure about, like, never knowing anything and not having gotten a Ph.D. You know, all of these types of expertise—we all have the thing where we say, well, I didn’t do that, and other people did that, and so other people know more about this than me, because of X or Y. And I did find myself letting go of some of that, and allowing for myself that sort of dignity. You just very nicely described that feeling as ennobling, of having one’s everyday thinking be acknowledged and respected. And then, as with a lot of things, you realize, Oh, that has to include me, because otherwise self-deprecation becomes a kind of self-aggrandizement in that way—if I’m hung up on my own shit, it means I’m treating myself differently.

So I had to just say OK, I need to see what my thinking is and try to do things with it and be responsible for what it is, and not be so caught up about what it isn’t, or what’s not happening, or who I’m not, because otherwise I think you can end up in a more entangled egoistical space.

JT: Throughout the book, the moments of angry and precise assertion are chosen with incredible care, and one that most stuck with me is in “Work,” when you just say, “Our labor isn’t ours. It bears within it others’ work, others’ time, their years of frustration, boredom, achievement, and our own work radiates through the living hours of those we in no other way know.” What I hear in what you just said is a refusal to minimize or eat away at our own intellectuality, or our own expertise in our lives, or our own ability to make connections between the seemingly disparate parts of our lives, as a way to then have something to give to others. If we don’t eat away our own foundations, then we have something to pass on. And if we don’t eat away our foundations, we’re honoring the gifts that we’ve gotten from others’ care, others’ labor, others’ frustration, others’ boredom.

HP: Yeah. In that case I was thinking about medical work particularly, but it’s true of everything, and the pandemic emphasized this, obviously, because we witnessed our connections to and our reliance on each other so starkly.

JT: What books are you reading right now? What’s feeding your brain?

HP: I always feel like I’m not reading anything, which is not accurate. Whenever anyone asks me, I’m like, I can’t read! But I just started rereading a Tana French novel. I’ve been in a real detective fiction hole; in a good way—well, in a bad way and a good way, in part because I read them when I’m not feeling well, and I’ve been not feeling well a lot. So I think I’ve read about thirty detective novels in the past year; I wrote them all down this year, and I thought, That’s pretty solid. But I just restarted a Tana French one that I love, called Broken Harbor. And I’ve been listening to this history of the crime novel. So I’ve been thinking a lot about that genre, and what’s so appealing about it, and what’s so appealing about it to me, and what I want to do with it.

I also just reread Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, which I helped to publish, and I’ve read it I don’t know how many times, but then I reread it and I thought, This is a real banger. Such a fucking good novel. Which I knew the whole time, but it was great to come back and think, It’s even better than I thought. I was an idiot, I thought it was really, really good, but it was really, really, really good.

And I just re-read Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, which I feel very similarly about: it’s really a perfect novel.

Crime novels, detective novels, are a pretty heavy genre. When you’re reading one, it has a set of expectations, it has tones, it has a lot of history and traditions. It’s like a sonnet, as someone said to me recently; it brings a lot with it, but I love also thinking about what authors do in that space, and what makes them want to be in such a constrained space, where they get to express their artistic offerings through what frictions they have with the form and what they decide to do with those. And it’s a form about the criminal justice system, yet at its best it’s about the failures and the insufficiency of that system. Crime novels are often so much about a place and a time, and they’re about the political and systemic pressures of that place and time—the crime is chosen to express those, right?

I’ve also been reading a lot of students’ writing, and it’s interesting, there’s a trend or tendency at the moment toward a lot of speculative work in their fiction. And that’s not something I’ve done—I’ve done little smidges of speculative fiction, but never a whole book. And I’m realizing, in contrast, wow, I feel so committed to reality right now. So I’ve been trying to think about why that is, and what are the ways that fiction comments on history, or does the work of history and journalism for us, that are so meaningful to me.

You mentioned Peter Dimock, whose work I love and which is part of a vein of more documentary fiction that’s been happening steadily, although not quite exploded into the mainstream. That kind of work is very engaged with reality; it’s doing its fiction very much around archival material or things drawn directly from reportage or history, and it’s often interacting very directly with journalism, which is more like the fiction that I’ve written.

So I’ve been kind of coming back to that same set of ideas, thinking, Given others’ love of the speculative, what is my love of reality? And then enjoying thinking of crime fiction as an in-between. Its genre form means that it feels like a performance: it’s doing a genre. You couldn’t say that it’s exactly realistic, but of course it’s realism. It has to be believable, and it’s supposed to feel like a real time and place, and its violence has a real weight to it.

JT: What do you hope unifies Hole Studies?

HP: Some of the things we talked about: feeling dignified and empowered in the ways that we think, and decentering authority from some of its usual shit-hole fortresses, recognizing authority in the spaces where it’s happening, and cultivating receptivity instead, other modes of response. I think that is the theme throughout the book. The first essay ends in watching Riz Ahmed appear in different settings across mainstream media, and the kind of opportunities that he seems to generously create for people there, which they mostly don’t take him up on. But there’s still the invitation: if you can recognize when someone’s doing that, you can try to respond; there’s a lot of potentiality and potency in moments like that. And art is a space like that—I mean, when it’s good, someone is generously making a potential space for future togetherness. But you in the audience have to do the next thing, right?

So I think the theme of the book is about that: recognizing those moments of possibility or potential and then feeling empowered to receive them and respond to them, even though you might just be a person.

It’s a book that also helped me think more about teaching, and so maybe it can do that for other people, but I don’t know.

JT: The way you describe the hope of the writing workshop as a “nice space” is another sounding of the moral theme of the book. You write, “I, too, am someone. This is how I tried it. This is how it worked out, in case that is useful to know,” and then, “Please use what I’m trying to say to say something you want to say.” I think that’s another sounding of that theme of shared labor and the dignity of our knowledge, or the dignity that we can give to our experience by taking it seriously.

HP: I hope so! I do like to use that phrase (and I write about this in the book), when teaching a workshop for example, to say that I am just trying to make a nice space—that’s the sentence that bubbles up in me and I’ve decided to stick with it. That phrase, “make a nice space,” seems kind of humble, pathetic, maybe misguided, next to academic course objectives and, like, aesthetic aims. But I like that about it, I like using a phrase that’s a little embarrassing and declines some forms of expert status, as we’ve talked about. I like that it doesn’t make an argument about what good writing is and who might be doing it and who will be the judge—it makes an argument instead about good experiences and good processes. So it’s not about what I, the teacher, will deliver as an authority, it’s about what we all will need to offer each other. It is very hard to make a space that feels nice to everyone in it, since people are very different and they are often in that same space for different reasons, looking for different outcomes. Ideally, niceness doesn’t deny or suppress difference, it makes space for it, while refusing hierarchies. So you have to keep observing, asking, checking in, calibrating, turning agency over to others but also guiding when it is useful, always attending.

I’m not saying other people need to use this phrase—to make a nice space—especially since it is kind of banal, but I think teachers can find tools or guidelines that work for them and help them counter the tendencies toward hierarchy that swell up inside us or that roam any room, making these insidious dynamics that are exclusionary and unjust, not open. So that phrase (whatever anyone’s phrase is and feel free to use mine if you like it) is meant to be a kind of touchstone to help you recognize when hierarchy is getting going and think, that’s not so nice. So you’ll get in there and tend that space.

Part of that approach, and this is what the quotes you mention are getting that, is that I as the teacher can try to offer my own experience to the room, and maybe it’s useful to think of that as experience not expertise. You can say, I did it like this, it went like that, in case that’s useful to know. But that mode of teaching or talking is more participatory—it means you’re doing less of the teaching thing where you impart knowledge and perform authority, and more of the teaching thing where you help students identify their questions, build a methodology and mode of approach—this is true of creative writing, too—and then reflect on their own processes and the work that resulted and the feedback they got. This is harder for everyone, especially because students often want clear definitive answers to their questions, not more questions, or an invitation to answer their question themselves—we all want to just receive sometimes and not be made responsible, especially if we’re not sure yet if we have the skills we need. And teachers also like to answer questions because it feels good and we want structure so that we’re not wandering too vaguely or idiosyncratically, or falling into the trap Dimock outlines, where an improvisatory practice that’s meant to build reciprocity—like conversation, like workshop—slides into complicity instead. But I think this is still the right less/more balance to try for. And after some years in teaching, I feel I still have a lot to learn and want to keep learning—and it’s hard even to want to keep learning! This is what is so admirable about the work of people being students—but I can say that the feeling of a nice space and good process is something I know students value, I’ve seen them value it and use it and try to offer it to each other.

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