Sunday, September 23, 2007

"Sunny Day on the Marsh (Newburyport Meadows)," by Martin J. Heade, oil on canvas, circa 1871-5


F is for flow

A popular writer on education has said that teachers should try to get students into the “flow” of activities so that they “lose” themselves in learning, but I’m more interested in helping my students occasionally step out of the flow and find a special kind of learning. There’s something troubling, in fact, about the idea of losing ourselves, since in many cases it leads to danger and even disaster. It’s all too common for people to “lose themselves” in credit card spending, television watching, video game playing, drugging, and drinking. Most violent crimes are committed by people who temporarily lose themselves in hatred and destructiveness. So, no, I’m not all that interested in promoting a sense of loss of self, a sense of being involuntarily carried along by some powerful force. I would rather help my students step away from the powerful forces that churn through their lives so they can get “the big picture” and begin to understand how those forces work, and, more importantly, how to use them to their advantage. For instance, I want to help them learn how to get a certain distance from their own writing so they can analyze its strengths and weaknesses. Only by looking at their essays objectively, with some detachment, can they calmly assess its merits. If they’re always caught in the “flow” of the writing, this kind of impartiality is impossible. Likewise, I want to show them how to occasionally use a kind of remote objectivity when reading a classic work of literature. Certainly I want them to become immersed in the power of the words and themes of the writing, but it’s also essential to intermittently move back from the intensity of the writing so as to better appreciate the overall artistry of the work. One of the surprising benefits of this detachment is the increased sense of relaxation that may arise when my students realize that they don’t have to get “swept up” in the turbulence of “creating” their essays or reading a challenging book. My students might begin to see, from this distant point of view, that their essays are something like sand castles: fun to build, completely ephemeral, and not really very important, in the big picture. Perhaps they’ll see books the same way, as intriguing artistic puzzles that might be solved by them, but might not – and, again, it’s not all that important. A certain dispassionate and comforting coolness is indispensable in an earnest writer and reader, and in any earnest student in my English classes.

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