This isn't exactly a draft as much as it is an experiment.
Writing while cognitively impaired.
I’d just had my first full physical from my first doctor after moving to New York City, and the long row of numbers from all the tests a good and thorough doctor gives, proved conclusively that I was the very picture of an exceptionally healthy human being.
Ten days later.
I remember coming to on my bathroom floor, crawling across the floor, pulling myself up into my bed, and wanting only to sleep.
My phone beeped a reminder that I had a conference call with all my HASTAC and Digital Media and Learning colleagues at noon. I summoned my teaspoonful of energy and texted: “Fainted. Can’t be on call.” Suddenly, my phone was ringing, familiar voices were summoning me to action, I had to call “911,” NOW, or they would come and break down my door.
I wanted to nap.
Somehow a neighbor was summoned, I was brought to ER, there was an emergency procedure. I lost half my blood supply in about five minutes, through a massive GI bleed. I'm told I'll be fine--as long as I stay away from aspirins and NSAIDs.
The only way to get better from such a traumatic loss of blood is time, rest, letting the mind and body slowly heal. Prognosis for complete recovery is high. It's the short term that is troubling--and fascinating, to anyone interested in learning.
In this extremely stressed condition, taking medicines with side effects that make me too restless to sleep, too groggy to read or listen to audio books or to watch anything complex, there are things I can and cannot do.
Here is an interesting one for any English teacher: I cannot read conversation or complex narrative. I cannot listen to complex narrative. An allusion is dropped, a plot twists or turns, and it loses me.
I think of all the students novels have lost in my classrooms over the years, even simple novels.
I pass most of my days watching “Million Dollar Listings” or “Million Dollar Matchmaker.” The narrative there is simple: it wasn't sold, now it is. Success stories. I can follow those.
A friend thought “Parks and Recreation” would amuse me and help me pass the time as I recover . I couldn’t keep the threads together long enough to understand the punch line of the jokes. I could see the actors mugging and know there had been a set-up but couldn't quite remember how or where. You may not think P and R is complex, but, for some of us, it is.
My dear late friend Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick spent the last ten years of her life as a Buddhist and a queer theorist and, beyond all, a teacher and she turned her long battle with cancer into a practice. As she lost her cognitive abilities to disease and chemotherapy she would talk about her insight into a new world of cognition that had not been available to her as a "cognitively normalized" person.
She would say: those of us who are deemed normal might think we understand the differently brained, but we do not. We cannot.
We are “limited by being underimpaired.”
Normally, I would number the sections of this writing experiment.
* * *
The last time I had dinner with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and her partner Hal Sedgwick, a few weeks before she died, she gave me one of the greatest pedagogical insights I’ve ever had. Eve was an astonishingly original and influential literary theorist, queer theorist, poet, artist, and scholar of Buddhism. Depleted by a dozen years of intense chemotherapy, surgery, near-death encounters, experimental drugs and procedures, at the end, she told me, she passed her days mostly playing online solitaire. Her cognitive capacities had diminished so much that she needed some object of her attention to pass the hours and online solitaire pushed the limit of what her limited, ravaged cognition could manage.
“I feel lucky,” she insisted.
She had conserved that day’s “teaspoonful of energy” for a dinner at a beautiful, quiet, restaurant, our last very special meal together. “I feel lucky.”
She let that soak in. She knew it would not be an easy concept for me and my partner, her healthy friends, to grasp. “People who do not have cognitive disabilities think they know what it means to have limitations but they do not.”
She said she felt fortunate to be able to experience first-hand what it means not to be able to carry a complex thought through to completion, not to be able to follow a difficult narrative (she had been writing a book on Proust), not to be able to meditate (which requires the most focus and concentration of any thing). It was so Eve to be able to understand the unique insight her depleted condition offered her: what it means to engage the world without the filter of mastery.
As she said that night, the real disability of the smart and the well-educated is they are “handicapped” in how they see the world: they see it “limited by being underimpaired.”
* * *
One reason I am so happy to be at the Graduate Center is they hired Eve when she thought she might have only six months to live and under perilous health conditions. She ended up teaching until she died, 12 years, the longest she taught anywhere, and turned her dying into some of the most beautiful pedagogy of life that anyone has ever seen.
When she could no longer read Proust or write her book on Proust, students came to her studio and made physical books with her, and gently discussed Proust together. So beautiful.
Eve wrote: "What I'm proudest of, I guess, is having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart."
Her website: http://evekosofskysedgwick.net/ Explore it and you will find many treasures, including images of her beautiful art books.
Handicapped by being underimpaired. Limited by being underimpaired. Eve explored the limitless limit.
* * *
Almost everything I dedicate myself to these days as a scholar, a teacher, and a program designer is inspired by this conviction that we are all limited in some way.
Learning is going past our current limit, whatever and wherever that limit may be at a given time.
There is always another limit to go beyond, but it keeps changing as we learn, as we have experiences in the world, as our goals and responsibilities and interests and situation change.
Once you are at another limit, after you have attained some mastery, it is often impossible to remember what you didn’t know before; it is almost impossible to see the world as you would have seen it before you knew what you knew now.
It's almost impossible to unknow your thoughts or your abilities.
Historian of science Tim Lenoir tells the story of how, when he was still teaching at Stanford, in the late 1990s, he wanted to put on an exhibit of the first inventions of the digital age. He asked his friend and colleague Doug Engelbart, inventor of the mouse and many other things, if he could recreate the first mouse. Engelbart thought it would take a weekend. When he passed away in 2013, he still had not succeeded. He simply could not reverse engineer the original mouse and the original computer with which it interfaced because it was impossible to un-know everything he and everyone had learned since then to be able to figure out how what you would have invented if you didn’t know anything at all.
All learning is like that. Once you have an insight, it’s impossible to re-filter the world without that insight.
Yet, as great teachers, we have to understand what it takes to help our students to their insights, not to copy-cating for tests and exams and research papers and dissertations the insights their teachers have already come to.
We are all limited as teachers by already knowing what we know. We are all limited by being underimpaired.
This is the great handicap built into teaching in the conventional way: the teacher who knows measure students by how close they come to the standard s/he sets. But it is the very rare teacher who understands how you make a pathway to that knowledge for the person who doesn’t have it.
And it is the rarer teacher still who knows how you make that progression for someone who has the experience of failing—and being told they are failures—over and over and over again.
Learning isn’t just going past our limit; it is believing you can go past your limit.
If you are a great student, if you have full cognitive abilities, you believe that.
Most teachers were great students with full cognitive abilities. They are limited by being underimpaired.
* * *
So what does a teacher do to get over that handicap, that limitation of not being impaired?
You design situations where students can think through what they want to learn and help to set their own limits and goals--you don't preset them according to your goals and limits.
Content-based learning says you "pass" if you learn A, B, and C. Syllabus. Midterm. Final. Paper.
Student-centered learning inspires students to set their own goals, to define A, B, and C, and even to help construct the best paths to learning those, to achieving those goals, and to designing processes they can use to achieve other goals. Learning how to learn.
What if students could design the syllabus of their own learning? That task is much harder than learning what the prof says they should learn, A, B, and C.
Essential to student-centered teaching is making sure the power relations are shifted so that students are in charge of their own learning, charting their own learning, aware that they are learning, being recognized for their own learning by their peers, and thinking about what it means to them—to their life, not just to their grade—to have learned what they have learned. (We almost always, by the way, leave out that crucial step in our classrooms.)
I personally like to do radical pedagogical experiments which flip the power relationship between teacher and student so decisively that the students are in charge in a way that almost precludes their failure.
This year, we were starting a massive new program at the Graduate Center, and I was team-teaching with none other than the former President of the Graduate Center, Bill Kelly. (Bill was the beloved dept chair who hired Eve.)
Having that much academic power situated in one classroom called for the most radical de-centerering of the prof in order to re-center the course on the students and their learning.
We were teaching a course designed to empower our graduate students, all of whom were teaching or directing programs at one of the CUNY two- or four-year colleges, to not just teach an introduction to their field, but to understand the process of going towards mastery, especially for students who faced many challenges.
We conducted a radical experiment to reverse the assumptions of mastery, empowerment, control, and brilliance (all the ingredients of teacher-centered pedagogy but also important building blocks for any graduate student working towards writing a dissertation and earning a PhD).
Being a graduate student while being a teacher dedicated to student-centered pedagogy is an incredible oxymoron.
So President Emeritus Bill Kelly and Futures Initiative Director Cathy Davidson had to do something radical in teaching this first course together: we left the room.
We left the room. We were willing to give up our place in the center of graduate training in order to model, for our graduate students, what happens if you give up your place in the center of your students’ learning in an introductory course.
We prepared for our retreat.
We had put up huge post-it notes with the class schedule and we left it to the dozen graduate students in nine fields (computer science to Classics) to organize themselves into teams, create four topic-centered units, and literally put themselves on the calendar, responsible for two class sessions each on student-centered learning.
One class would be a discussion and a pedagogical experiment based on theoretical research on the topic. Then everyone would go out and try the new method in their own student-centered introductory course. The next class would be a debriefing.
There are far simpler ways to begin a class, to recenter learning in the student not in the prof or the credential. We chose the most radical because our graduate students had the most difficult mission to carry out: learning how to give up their expertise so their students could learn even though the primary job of a graduate student is to gain expertise and they were being taught by a Distinguished Prof and the founding director of the Futures Initiative and the President Emeritus.
That's a lot of expertise and status.
Handicapped by being underimpaired.
They students did it. We are still having external evaluators chart student success rates but, anecdotally, in some classes, including STEM classes where failure is common, a significant percentage of students achieved A’s and B’s. The graduate students. And their CUNY students.
Recentering learning to focus on students, not syllabus, on learning how to learn, not content.
Not only did 200 people come to the Graduate Center for our final event, but about 60% of those had never been to the Graduate Center before.
And a full 10% of the students in the introductory courses taught by our graduate students applied for and have been accepted as peer mentors for next year’s student-centered courses. That is an astonishing factor.
Student-centered learning works when students take the lead. Wanting to mentor other students is the best possible proof of the pudding of student-centered learning.
* * *
Educator Steve Wheeler calls this “flipping the teacher”—not flipping the classroom, the teacher.
Bill Kelly and I chose the most radical way because of the baggage we brought. Our credentials make blinders.
A far simpler way is to begin the class with some kind of online project where the students can succeed. In the Digital Media and Learning Initiative, when we are working with extremely disadvantaged students, we often begin with something that seems utterly familiar: you will write a spoken word poem, you’ll create the beats, you’ll rap it, you’ll record it, you’ll make the video.
Not all students have those talents but they all have the prior knowledge of the genre, form, assumptions, cultural norms, standards on which to build to their own mastery. And then, as in this keynote speech at the “Equity by Design” conference, by Nichole Pinkard, featuring the teaching of Akili Lee and the late Brother Mike, you throw in a challenging, important text that requires incredible linguistic, literary, cultural, and narrative sophistication as the focus of the multimedia production: http://dml2015.dmlhub.net/dml2015-videos/.
In this case, the text chosen was Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, a historical novel set in the Anglo-Dutch world of slavery in 1680. To do a great multimedia response to A Mercy requires in depth knowledge of history, politics, race relations, global colonialism, gender roles, as well as the highest and most complex literary accomplishment.
All of that would be daunting for the students in this program, none of whom comes from an educational or familial background that makes such complex objects of study familiar. By starting with what the students do know, they can build upon their own knowledge and build towards mastery of this elite, sophisticated cultural model.
99.9% of college classrooms assume the value of the cultural model and judge you as “impaired” or “inferior” if you do not master it.
That is, of course, because most of us as college professors are handicapped or limited by being underimpaired.
We do not even know what it is like to be in a classroom where the object of study seems obscure, impossible, incomprehensible and therefore irrelevant, trivial, frivolous, bad.
* * *
It is not at all surprising to me that the major of students from the highest family income is English. In an Atlantic article provocatively titled “Rich Kids Study English,” we see a continuum from law enforcement to English: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/07/college-major-rich-f...
This doesn’t surprise me. Wealth brings with it a range of educational and cultural enrichments. The single biggest consumer income differential of parents of high school age students is how much they spend on “educational enrichments” for their kids. It’s greater than food, shelter, clothing, vacations, luxury goods. And if you come to college without cultural enrichments, a lot of the humanities seem impossible. Unattainable. Exclusive and exclusionary.
Tacit knowledge. Privilege. Priviledged knowledge. Its own kind of impairment.
What a tragedy! English should be taught as a survival skill. On the simplest level, in famously, appallingly, seemingly unbudge-ably monolingual America, English is literally key up the economic ladder. Ideology aside, you don’t become a CEO of a US company without great English skills.
And it isn’t just CEOs but everything, in any productive adult walk of life. Reading, writing, critical thinking, and creative expression are the skills—along with collaboration and project management—that chart most clearly onto future, long term success, especially in positions of middle and upper management. But, as my first dean at my first tenure-track job once said, “Reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic are the big three of education. The humanities have a corner on two out of the three. And we blow it.”
Instead, we in English often substitute complex mastery of complex texts, battling over interpretations in complex cultural productions, for real focus on what it means to read well, what it means to write well, what it means to think critically and express oneself creatively and eloquently.
We are limited by our under-impairment: not cognitive impairment but cultural and educational: all the ways students come into a classroom without preparation for complex critique of complex critics of complex masterpieces of culture.
· We see our students as “dumb” and do not begin to see what we cannot see.
· Like Doug Engelbart who could not retroactively recreate the primitive first mouse, we cannot reverse engineer what we have mastered on the way to earning our PhD’s in order to address new learners encountering complicated material for the first time.
· So, in English courses, we teach kids who come from “underimpaired” backgrounds. Rich Kids Major in English.
· And that is a tragedy: because there are no skills more essential to lifelong success (and perhaps happiness too) than reading, writing, interpreting, critical thinking, creative expression.
* * *
This is not just about English departments. In the humanities in general, there are so many cultural barriers since the humanities preserve and embody, often in complex and ambiguous narrative forms, cultural assumptions. If you are an immigrant or a first-generation college student, those are not necessarily assumptions you share or even understand.
Eve was saying her “chemo brain” helped her to understand students and anyone who had a hard time understanding that which other people thought was absolutely simple. In her case, it was cognitive. In the case of many of our college students, the obstacles are cultural. And culture often maps onto income.
In the STEM courses, especially those with extensive mathematical content, you had to learn material often without a solid foundation upon which to learn something more complex. Both require student-centered teaching: that is, understanding the conditions of learning for each individual student in order to help chart a path to mastery and, more, empowering each student to understand their own best pathway to learning. Another opposite of student-centered teaching is credential-centered teaching: where you goal is to earn a grade. Period.
In student-centered teaching you learn how you learn best so that, in the process of mastering the subject matter in a specific course, you are gaining the tools that will serve you in all future courses and in your future life. It is not about training students to be “mini-me’s,” future professors in the field taught by the professor. That is way too much the current model of college teaching.
Student-centered learning is based in meta-cognition, understanding how we think, what our obstacles are, what our pathways are, and how content is also form, form is also content, and both can be ways of mastery that help us understand our world better, more deeply, more proactively.
To reverse Eve’s insight: maybe learning is to be “unlimited by our impairments.”
It's having the dexterity and humility and confidence to teach students how to make physical books while chatting about Proust when chemo has ravaged your brain and you can no longer apply critical brilliance to deconstructing and queering Proust.
Sidebar: Most undergraduates who drop out of college do so in the first year, when confronted with that array of difficult, wide-ranging introductory courses, often in fields for which high school has left them either unprepared or underprepared.
These are by far the most challenging and difficult courses to teach. And often universities leave graduate students or junior professors to teach them.
Often they are taught by adjunct professors who themselves are living in the most stressed, insecure, overworked, and underpaid labor conditions.
The Futures Initiative is dedicated to reversing all that.
* * *
My friend Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was, above all, a teacher. She believed deeply that she had insights worth sharing and she dedicated her life to sharing. Eve’s greatest gift was to make every encounter full of meaning, which is to say fueled by empathy and love.
When she was too ravaged by chemo to lead her students in deconstructing and queering Proust's texts--when she herself could no longer read--she had them to their house and they made physical books together and chatted, about life, about death, about Proust. While cutting and pasting, coloring and drawing, making patterns with ink stamps. Pasting on fabric, beads.
In my current state, I’m surprised by what I can and cannot do, and of course I think of Eve.
What is clear to me in this state of cognitive impairment is that the amount of information you need to understand and even to follow a complex narrative is staggering. Even “Parks and Recreation.”
For me, writing this meandering essay has been pretty easy (although I’ll soon pack it in for the rest of the day). But there is not a way on earth that, in my current state, I would be able to go back and read this. Literally true.
That’s why I’m putting it into a Google Doc, accepting comments, and will shape it into an essay or a chapter later, when I am well again.
But I am writing this now, in this state of impairment, because it is such a state of insight—thanks to my friend/teacher Eve.
Yesterday, in the course of testing out a hard drive so I could find some other silly something to watch, I put in the dvd’s of the memorial to Eve, at the Graduate Center.
So many people talked about her dozen years here, where the full time she knew she was dying, she turned her dying and her cognitive loss into a Buddhist pedagogy and practice, and an unforgettable journey for her students.
I will never forget our last conversation.
That great gift she gave me, as I was working on attention and on new modes of teaching based on the cognitive neuroscience of attention that I was researching then. The handicap of being “underimpaired.”
She felt sorry for people who had never once experienced cognitive disability or educational lack of preparation or economic instability or any other kind of obstacle on the way to mastery. Those people thought they understood deficit but they didn’t. They couldn’t, because they were "handicapped by being underimpaired.”
Student-centered learning admits that every student has some area of mastery that a teacher does not and builds upon that. Sometimes what seems like a deficit is, precisely, what is the key.
(Ah, the HASTAC motto: “Difference is not our deficit. It’s our operating system.”)
That, in a nutshell, is the brilliant insight at the heart of egalitarian teaching.
It is the very rare teacher who understands how you make a pathway to that knowledge for the person who doesn’t have it. And it is the rarer teacher still who knows how you make that progression for someone who has the experience of failing—and being told they are failures—over and over and over again. Learning isn’t just going past our limit it is
Most teachers were great students with full cognitive abilities.
Bill Kelly and I left the room . We let go. We told our students they were the teachers. We did not say what counted as "ability." We did not say what counted as "content." We did not say what counted as "excellence."
We trusted them to set those goals together and then find a way to help the rest of us achieve the goals they had set.
Remember, they were our graduate students. For their CUNY undergraduates, they were the instructors, the authorities, the underimpaired profs who set the syllabus and the standards.
Bill and I gave that up by leaving the room.
If we could do it, they could.
We gave them permission by showing them how well it could work to give their students permission.
Eve’s greatest gift was to make every encounter full of meaning, which is to say fueled by empathy and love.
Sometimes what seems like a deficit is, precisely, what is the key. That, in a nutshell, is the brilliant insight at the heart of egalitarian teaching and learning.
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One month after writing this experiment, I regained my sense of touch. I did not know until August that I had lost it. I could still exert pressure. I could still feel things. I did not know what I was missing, that I was missing it.
Then, I touched our homespun, antique rough cotton bedsheets one day and I realized how gorgeous they felt and realized that I had not felt that slightly scratchy, nubby texture since June.
I ran around the house, touching things.
I had not known that, for over two months, I had lost touch.
This is how we learn.
For an upcoming conference abour Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's contribution, join us October 23 for "Between Men at 30": http://www.centerforthehumanities.org/program/eve-kosofsky-sedgwicks-bet...