16 June 2011

Imaginary Syllabi

I've been reading Imaginary Syllabi (edited by Jane Sprague for Palm Press) while preparing three syllabi of my own for the forthcoming summer session, and I'm struck (so far) by how a number of contributors seem to intuitively link "learning" with "seeing differently" with recalibrating the habitus with the simple act of drawing attention to what the body is doing while thinking or reading or writing (or thinking of reading or writing or thinking!). Brenda Iijima mentioned in an email that many of my recent posts seem to investigate "body ecology," and I admit to immediately returning to Eleni Stecopolous's reference to Jean Luc Nancy after reading the first few contributions from Imaginary Syllabi: that which enables contemplation of the body renders the body exterior (I just checked the exact citation from Eleni's somatics questionnaire, and I realize now that I got it interestingly twisted. Here's Eleni: "Jean-Luc Nancy writes that the Western quest for embodiment only 'expel[s] the thing we desired…That’s why the body, bodily, never happens, least of all when it’s named and convoked. For us, the body is always sacrificed: eucharist' (Corpus). What enables contemplation for Nancy inherently renders the object exterior to 'me.'”). What happens when the body and the body's habits become central to an embodied teaching practice?

In Dana Teen Lomax's contribution to Imaginary Syllabi, fittingly titled "Disclosure," physical documents disclosing intimate facts about the author (including photocopies of credit card statements and physical examinations) decrease the distance between teacher and student by making the author more human (and embodied and vulnerable).

Dorothea Lasky's "Red Exercise" challenges students to imagine how the very environment they inhabit a(e)ffects how they see. She writes,

"...I had spent the entire summer...thinking about red paired with its unlikely oppositea pale aquamarine. I was making a lot of jewelry then...and I kept imagining making a necklace of aquamarines with one single bright red bead. The fantasy transcended into other mental images where red might be a singular thing in a sea of paler attributes. I imagined a room where everything was pale blue, except one red bowl. To connect myself physically to this idea, I would wear outfits where I only had one red thing on (one red sock, sparkly red glass earrings, a red hair tie, red fingernails) in the midst of an entire pale yellow ensemble. I became obsessed with red's power to drive everything else it came in contact with."

In a nutshell, Lasky's exercise asks students to study red objects, loved ones interacting with red objects, and feelings associated with red objects in order to write a poem inspired by visual environments. She continues, "Because writing is, at least in part, about capturing human behaviors as completely as one can, it is important to me to train young writers to notice, understand, and represent the world through emergent themes versus simply placing linear constructs upon it and recording the words that represent these constructs. My imagined course would allow students to meditate upon the world seen through various lenses in order to notice universal themes of human experience. It would be important because, I believe, it would move the creative process of writers towards seeking more complex and novel forms of expression."

Imaginary Syllabi also contains four of CA Conrad's Soma(tic) Exercises, which consistently and brilliantly put the body in all kinds of interesting and unfamiliar circumstances (and environments) in order to realign perception of phenomena and their effects. Here's "Aphrodite's Hatan" in full:

"Wash a penny, rinse it, slip it under your tongue and walk out the door. Copper is the metal of Aphrodite, never forget this, never, don't forget it, ever. Drink a little orange juice outside and let some of the juice rest in your mouth with the penny. Oranges are the fruit of Aphrodite, and she is the goddess of Love, but not fidelity. Go somewhere outside, go, get going with your penny and juice. Where do you want to sit? Find it, and sit there. What is the best Love you've ever had in this world? Be quiet while thinking about that Love. If someone comes along and starts talking, quietly shoo them away, you're busy, you're a poet with a penny in your mouth, idle chit chat is not your friend. Be quiet so quiet, let the very sounds of that Love be heard in your bones. After a little while take the penny out of your mouth and place it on the top of your head. Balance it there and sit still a little while, for you are now moving your own forces quietly about in your stillness. Now get your pen and paper and write about POVERTY, write line after line about starvation and deprivation from the voice of one who has been Loved in this world."

I admit to feeling a bit suspicious of (and, frankly, sometimes exhausted by!) some of the rhetoric surrounding emancipatory pedagogical models, though all the talking and thinking makes me want to buy into Kristin Prevallet's "course description" that "You will learn what you already know and will know what you haven't yet thought to learn." However, as an active participant in these conversations and a lifetime learner and a teacher in an MFA writing program and also a teacher of remedial reading and writing at a "school of last resort," I'm not sure Prevallet's statement is all that helpful. How do we learn what we already know? How do we discover (and become interested in!) what we haven't thought to learn? I'm most interested in practical solutions to ameliorating the weird power dynamic between student and teacher, but in a way that does justice to the often vast discrepancy in resources between the two. Lomax and Lasky and Conrad remind us that real thinking begins when the habitual has been usefully disrupted, and there's no better place to start than our relationship to our own bodies and the environments we inhabit.

More thinking on Imaginary Syllabi to follow... 

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