Archive for October, 2013

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

Somewhere in my distant past, now lost in time’s shifting mists, its haze suggesting the delicate beauty of impressionist landscapes and panels containing mauve Japanese flower drawings, a fast fading thought flies by leaving my brain before I can be sure what it was trying to tell me. But later in the day, as if by magic, the thought returns or what I think must have been the thought quietly comes back reminding me of memory’s quirky hold on the past.

What I wanted to remember but couldn’t regardless of how hard I tried is the day or week or month or even the year when a new term was coined which, almost overnight, gained currency nationwide, sweeping through the halls of higher learning we call academia, and the plethora of learned professions linked to higher learning’s hallowed halls with bonds of silken thread as strong and tough as a Caterpillar Tractor plowing through rich, hard packed, Midwest soil in early March.

To me, when the new term first surfaced, it seemed hum drum, even boring, but perhaps that was part of its charm. Bells and whistles—glitz in all its tawdry splendor–were no longer in favor; for higher learning’s fashion wheel had turned: glitz was out, bare bones was in.

The new term I’m referring to is now old hat, at least that’s how it seems to me. The term is tattered, worn out, but unwilling, so far, to say goodbye. So with us it remains, still used often enough, even if the alacrity and aplomb which initially gave it its first push long ago left it for another shore and a new generation. And you, dear reader, wise, open minded, and forgiving with, like us all, a certain penchant for nostalgia may not have noticed, at least not consciously, how shop worn this term has become. Yet I’m convinced it’s definitely overstayed its welcome.

Oh! And before I forget, let me mention the term I’ve become increasingly unhappy with—and, in all candooor, assure you I’m convinced that deep down, you share my displeasure with the term’s continued use. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if unbeknownst to yourself, you’ve already figured out the term I’m thinking of, but let me mention it anyway, so we can be sure we’re all together on the same page. Yes, the tattered term I’ve been ranting about is, of course, “thinking outside the box.”

What could be more banal, more humdrum than a box? Nothing at all special about a box, wouldn’t you agree? No special color scheme, nor size, nor hotshot brand name necessary. Oh, it’s 070128_008_NewYorkerCollection P175a gotta be a box from Whole Food, or Starbucks, or Trader Joe’s, or Target, or Neiman Marcus, or Tiffany’s! Wrong. The box can be any box; the important thing is simply to have one, and then think outside of it.

And as soon as you’ve done this, you’re home free. You hit the jackpot. The target. The target’s bulls eye. Sound too simple. Not really. For this common place object—a box, any box—actually possesses a magical power that can lift you out of your everyday world unto creativity’s sacred shores. Follow that famous mantra and you’re all set: you too can be creative, original and, hopefully, become rich as well. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want this? I don’t know about you but honesty compels me to admit that I certainly would.

That’s the term’s claim in any event, and it’s certainly enjoyed a remarkable career. But I believe it’s ready for retirement—indeed, it’s retirement is long overdue. For strangely enough, at least to me, intellectual terms or products are subject to fancies and fashion cycles in ways that closely resemble fashion cycles for cars, hem lines, lipsticks, and eye shadow. When everyone wants to drive an SUV, you don’t want to be caught driving a clunky 4 door sedan, wouldn’t you agree? Ditto phrases like “thinking outside of the box.” Besides, thinking out of the box no longer works. It’s like a gold vein which has been drained dry.

So starting next month, promise me you’ll at least try to go an entire morning without thinking you need to think outside the box. If you find at first you can’t make it, don’t beat yourself up. Forgetaboutit and get a good night’s sleep. But on the next day, try it again. Give it another shot. And I’ll bet you’ll be successful. Then shoot for a morning and whole afternoon. After that, aim to get through an entire day without thinking you need to think outside the box. Then celebrate. And as your final act of liberation, switch gears entirely and think about thinking inside the box.

 

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

I was sitting on the end of the fifth row inside the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago when someone came up alongside me.

“You’re Paul, right?”

A young woman was standing there smiling at me. I said, “Yes?” as I wondered how she knew me. Debt collector? Friend of a bitter ex-girlfriend? Rabid Turtle fan?

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Anna. I was in your writing class.”

“Ooooooh! Annnnnnaaaaaa! How are you!!!?”

I had no clue.

I assumed she was a student from Robert Morris University where I teach now, but after several minutes and questions, I gradually deduced she was a student from my alma mater Lewis University, where I was an adjunct instructor in 2007.

ITenthn her hands was a copy of “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, the author we were there to see. When our conversation paused, I used that to ask an obvious question, “Are you a Saunders fan?”

My own introduction to George Saunders came along an odd, serendipitous path.

In early 2006, I was working on my M.A. in Writing at DePaul University with a concentration in Creative Writing. Fiction was my passion. My Fiction Professor, after reading some of my stories, told me, “Your writing is similar to George Saunders. Have you read him?”

Eh.

Like all English majors and creative writers, I have been told of a thousand authors I “have to read!” by classmates, professors, friends, baristas, garbagemen, podiatrists….

I ignored the suggestion.

Three years later, I am taking a Fiction class as part of my MFA in Fiction at Roosevelt University. After reading my work, the head of the program tells me, “Your work is reminiscent of George Saunders. Have you read him?”

I confess I have not, but admit that someone has floated that comparison before.

Still, I read nothing by Saunders.

Soon after this recommendation, I am at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago for a sold out show with one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. At the end of Sedaris’ shows, he always recommends a book that he is reading and enjoying. Take a wild guess which author Sedaris recommended.

“ALRIGHT ALREADY!” I thought.

I was instantly in love with Saunders’ work. It is brilliant, moving, and funny – three things I try to be in my fiction. Thus, the comparisons now made sense.

However, keep in mind what my professors’ comparisons really meant. Saying “You remind me of Saunders” was actually a polite way of saying, “There’s an author who does what you try to do….and he does it WAY better than you’ll EVER do it. Ya, you should probably study up on him.”

So, they were not saying, nor am I saying, that I’m as good a writer as a bestselling, MacArthur Genius Grant winning author. I’m damn sure not. But he was being brought up as someone I might learn from and emulate.

Now, years later, I am in the Rubloff Auditorium. Now, I’m a professor who has read all of his work, and even teaches some of it. I hesitated to attend. Despite being an English professor and a writer, traditional readings don’t excite me much.

Beyond that, I didn’t know if I could tolerate a Q&A session involving a famous author and an audience of young, aspiring writers – exactly the same as me in my early/mid-20s. The Q&As are all the same. All the young writers raise their hands and ask absurdly detailed and nonsensical questions about the craft of writing: “If I were to use a calculated series of semicolons inside a parenthetical statement that is actually a quote that is being said as part of a narrating character’s inner monologue, will this capture the core strife of socioeconomic imbalance between the modern family dynamic and allow the development of thematic qualities that….”

Oh, just shut the hell up.

It’s ridiculous. Not just the question itself, but because all of the questions – at their heart – are asking the exact same question:

“How do I get to be as great a writer as you?”

It’s as if they expect the famous author to spit up knowledge into their mouth like a mama bird, and suddenly they too will now be a bestselling author.

Mostly, the Q&A went exactly that way and I was drifting in and out of the discussion. But then Saunders said something that punched me right in my cynical face.

He talked about how writers should seek to draw from what is deep and familiar within them. He gave the analogy of how we all fall back to what we do best when we’re in a bind. How do we act when we get in trouble, or need one great pickup line, or need to impress and employer. He said his reservoir was and is humor and sentimentality. I would identify the same way. Hence, the comparisons were starting to solidify.

He then went on to advise, “Accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary.”

Boom. Mind blown.

It was not a ground-breaking point, but it was phrased in a way that struck me particularly hard. In essence, I took it to mean that we need to draw on and accept our strengths even if they are deemed unconventional or wrong for our fields, degrees, or occupations.

For creative writing students like me, we go through writing degrees that attempt to program us into faded copies of our literary forebearers. “Forget about what YOU do well! Here’s what you MUST do; here’s what literature IS!”

In his most famous TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson also talks about this idea of how school educates us out of our creative capacities and devalues and discourages our skills and talents if they do not match those that are most immediately valued by academia and the workforce.

After over 8 years of schooling in creative writing, I had been asked to evolve and emulate so much, that what I grew up loving to do became an absolute chore. As a kid, I loved writing stories and telling stories. By the time I made it halfway through my MFA, I hated even the thought of writing fiction. I had no fun doing it anymore. It’s no fun to spend my time trying to write like and be like other people, and I’ve found no success in writing that way. (Side note: most creative writing programs would ardently argue that they don’t do this – that they are actually encouraging everyone to embrace the writer they are. Complete B.S.)

With writing, like all professions, there is the problem that – for as much as creativity and innovation is lauded – the norm is too often what gets promoted.

And so, here is Anna standing next to me and I don’t recognize her. However, she clearly remembers me. Obviously she knew my name, but then she goes into specifics about what we did in class, what papers we wrote, and what specific topics she wrote about. I now knew which class she had been in.

And then she laughed. It was a distinctive laugh, and suddenly it triggered my memory. I instantly knew what class she was in, what room we had, which desk she sat in – all of it.

As we continued to talk, it hit me: a student I had in class over a half-decade ago remembers me, and was impacted enough in my class to still know my name, to know what we did in class, and to have liked me enough to want to come say hello.

On the drive home, it dawned on me: Saunders’ advice to “accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary” is not just true of writing, but of life. Find your strengths. Accept them. Use them. Don’t try to reinvent yourself into someone else. It will be disingenuous; it won’t work.

In teaching, I’ve already accepted the parts of me that were previously considered unacademic, and it seems to have worked out. When I get into class, I draw upon my reservoir of humor and sentimentality, and being me has worked. I’ve mostly ignored the pedagogical programming from graduate school that tried to shape me into a factory-made professor, and that run-in with Anna seems to prove I made the right choice.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Sagging Pants?  Outrage.  Twerking?  Outrage.  Largest bank in Europe laundering money for drug dealers and terrorist organizations? Crickets.

The first two examples above can really kick up an American’s dander. The third was passed over with barely a murmur.  Fashion choices that affect no one; dancing fads that look like other dancing fads; someone working the system to get food stamps when they are not needed.  Such stories have become social media, and mainstream media obsessions.  The publicized word of mouth outrage has been metastatic. It feeds on itself.  Outrageously however, our saggy-pants-illustration-vl-verticalnational obsessive outrages point in the wrong direction. Real outrageous stories and happenings fall by the wayside, replaced by the latest absurd outrage d’jour.  We need to figure out what is going on, and get outraged over this misplaced outrage.

Start with baggy pants.  I pointed out in my last post how sagging jeans is still a topic people get riled up over, two decades since they became a common fashion trend.  The notoriously stiff and starched George Will wrote a somewhat hilarious opinion piece about pants a couple years ago, calling the ubiquity of blue jeans in our culture “an obnoxious misuse of freedom”.  While a just a wee-bit of an overstatement, ol’Georgie boy will be pretty happy to know that this freedom is slowly being curtailed in certain parts of the United States when those blue jeans are a just a bit too saggy.  That’s right, in some towns of our ‘sweet land of liberty’, it is now a fine-able offense to wear ‘baggy pants’.  In April, a Louisiana town passed an ordinance that would fine baggy pant wearers “$50 for the first offense, $100 for the second offense and $100 plus 16 hours of mandatory community service for the third offense.”  And, in case you think this is an issue of a white, racist majority, trying to legislate modern Jim Crow laws, think again.  Jerome Boykin, the president of the local NAACP chapter declared, “There is nothing positive about people wearing saggy pants. This is not a black issue, this is not a white issue, this is a people issue… Young men who were in prison who wanted to have sex with other men would send a signal to another man with his pants below his waist.”

Oh boy. Let us get this out of the way right now.  The homophobic baggy pant prison theory/rumor is false.  The look evidently did come from the prison system.  But, all inmates had baggy pants because it is a suicide risk having belts in the clink.  Furthermore, EVEN if the homophobe theory was true, who really cares where or how the trend began?  How does this justify outlawing someone’s fashion choice? This is unfortunately a rhetorical question.  American history is filled with ridiculous, often vicious laws regulating personal choices. See Jim Crow.

Outspoken outrage has been turned into legislation, and today’s hyper-connected world may be partly to blame for the ubiquity of such outrage, and hence, for the growth of such laws as well. Social media, and 24 hour news cycles, has allowed outrage to reach a deafening cacophony.  Modern media allows, perhaps even encourages, miley-the-screamoutrage to become obsession, with conspiracy theories, and unsubstantiated rumors (Prison homosexuals) travelling on fiber-optic cables, leaving the truth struggling behind, as it tries to connect with a dial-up modem. This is the world of the internet memes.  Memes can produce a falsified, angry narrative hidden behind universally recognized pop-culture humor. This internet guerrilla propaganda depends upon the most absurd of photos, and most flippant of reasoning to make a point, produce a laugh, or create a sneer.  Talking points then become repeated verbatim, creating an echo chamber of outrage that feeds upon itself.

Memes allow our outrage to be directed at the most daft and harmless social trends.  See twerking and Miley Cyrus for the most recent example.  Just this previous weekend, Saturday Night Live poked fun at the outrage about Cyrus’ VMA performance, using a nuanced, advanced humor to point to the absurdity of twerk-rage.

If you think this is all tongue-in-cheek, just quickly Google “Miley Cyrus Fall of Western Civilization“. You will find people who make such an argument.

So now, the big problem. Our contagious, self-spiraling outrage is making Americans truly blind to the forest for the saplings. If you ask Americans how they feel about baggy jeans, or Miley Cyrus twerking, you will get outspoken opinions, outrageous in their passion.  But, ask them about the HSBC scandal, and you would most likely get blank stares.

download (1)What is that, you may be asking?  A couple years ago, authorities discovered that HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, had been laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels, dictatorial regimes, and even Al Qaeda.  The United States military have shocked and awed nations and civilians for much less, but HSBC got a relatively light sentence from Washington D.C. The bank had to pay a 1.9 billion fine, which sounds all well and good, until you learn that outrageous total is about 9% of the company’s pretax yearly profit.  Oh, and another thing, not ONE manager, VP, CEO, CFO, got jailed, or even fired for this little indiscretion of laundering cash for murderers.  Where was the outrage?  Where were the memes?  Where were the viral videos?  Good questions.

Such ignorance of the HSBC makes me…well… outraged.  I need an answer.

Stuart-Gulliver

HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is an example of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’.  Maybe we get outraged over someone wearing baggy pants, or stealing an unnecessary 30 dollars from the government each month, or twerking because we are similar to those people.  They are us, and we are they with only a couple tweaks of the cultural dial.  Maybe HSBC is too big; too nameless.  Miley Cyrus was that girl next door who has gone bad.  HSBC is a multinational corporation. I know what Miley Cyrus looks like; I have no idea what HSBC’s CEO looks like (Stuart Gulliver).  We feel powerless attacking a monolithic bank. We feel empowered to shame a kid wearing jeans we don’t like, or a girl dancing in a way we find offensive.

It really is outrageous.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

“her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank,

instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her.” ~Jane Austen

As far as I have been able to discern from extensive reading of European literature, I possess all the inherent skills of successful and beloved duchesses across the centuries. I’m good at all things duchess-y (or is it-esque?). Duchesses are almost universally described as “highly intelligent,” just like me. I was born to be a duchess, and am now just a 21st-century lady-in-waiting.

The most celebrated duchesses are excellent correspondents. I am a huge proponent and practitioner of letter writing. I typically write two letters (including “thinking of you” or birthday cards) per week. If I had more free time, I expect I would write even more letters. I am certainly intimately acquainted with enough people to write a letter a day for the better part of the year, and if these people were to write back (though they rarely do), I’d respond to their responses. You can see how this would fill up my mornings as duchess.

Another thing duchesses are required to do is “run a household,” which generally means boss people around in order to ensure that the place (a palace, in most cases) looks its best. Ask any friend of mine whether or not I am particular about the placement of items in my home. They’ll tell you a story detailing my charmingly fastidious nature, I’m sure.

Having a discriminating eye and endless resources leads to impeccable interior design and an impressive art collection; thus, duchesses are well-known supporters of arts and culture. I readily collect what art I can, though my most expensive acquisition is in the tens of dollars, not the tens-of-thousands of dollars range. Nevertheless, my list of favorite things includes both live music and libraries. Therefore, I am already a well-season patroness and eagerly await the opportunity to expand my contributions in this capacity.

Duchesses are expected to host parties and special events. Again, I am highly qualified in this regard. While at parties, the best duchesses entertain their guests with topical conversation and witty banter. Duchesses infamously tell rather ribald stories, which I can do when pressed. Every season, I have at least one thematically appropriate event scheduled. In the fall, I put together my annual “Football Party” which includes an array of food and intense Bears’ football watching. Moreover, I ensure that an autumnal trip to the countryside takes place, clearly harkening back to a genteel, bygone era. One of the most famous parties in history is The Duchess of Richmond’s ball, a fascinatingly important party, and one whose significance I’m sure I could duplicate, if I only had duchess-quality resources at my disposal.

Image

Tricia Lunt?

Duchesses are always on the forefront of fashion (see Kate Middleton, now Duchess Katherine). While her style is enviable, I think I do alright with 1/1,000th of the budget. My most recent shopping trip resulted in the purchase of garnet suede lace-up boots. If that doesn’t scream “duchess,” I don’t know what does. I also like to wear a well-placed scarf, or sport a ridiculous hat. If she had been born in the 70’s, Madame de Pompadour and I would be essentially indistinguishable.

though she was only a Marquise, and I, as a duchess, would outrank her.

Thus, like any woman meant to be a duchess, my main task is to charm a lesser prince, which would not have been a problem had I spent the summer on a yacht in The Mediterranean as I should. Lesser princes are the younger brothers, not directly in line for the throne, and decidedly more fun (see Andrew and Harry), so I consider it a win-win.

My next best plan is to seek out a man nicknamed “Duke.”

By James Baltrum, English Faculty. 

            “Uno, dos, tres, Cuatro… Cinco, seis. siete, ocho… Nueve, diez, once, doce… nos cantamos otra vez.” This is a song that Loretta, my five year old daughter, has learned in kindergarten and has been singing pretty much nonstop ever since: in the car, at dinner, during her bath, in aisle seven of the grocery store… Repetitiveness aside, I very much enjoy the ubiquity of it. My wife is bilingual, and having known her since we were in high school together, it’s not exactly uncommon for her to throw an English sentence at me followed closely by a lobbed Spanish one right afterwards. Often, my wife switches to speaking Spanish, sometimes mid-thought, when she wants me to know something that no one else within ear shot is to know. None of this, though, is to say that I’m comfortable with foreign languages. My wife, for example, might toss a simple-enough sentence my way, perhaps a question: “¿qué quieres para la cena?” and I then grapple with the few words I recognize, wrestle some context out of the situation, and answer, palms sweaty and always in English, “what sort of leftovers do we have” or “let’s go out tonight” or “huh?”

lost-in-translation-bill-murray

James Baltrum?

And, yes, this is with my wife. Imagine then my discomfort when tussling with the foreign tongue of a stranger. A few summers ago, a paletero, an ice cream vendor, began appearing in our neighborhood, pushing his heavy cart along the sidewalks and ringing his bells irregularly. Within moments of hearing the jingling, I always find my children bolting out the door and across the yard and my right hand reaching back for my wallet while I play catch-up. “¡Hola!” I greeted him the first time he came down our block. “¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?” he asked. “Bien. Gracias… y tú?” I responded. Mnemonically, I was wading into the shallow end of my high school Spanish days with Senora Stopka. The water was tepid, but my feet were firmly planted on a solid bottom. “Bien… ¿Qué te gustaría?” he asked. Water levels raising… no life guard on duty. “Um… Un helado… de chocolate… tres, por favor.” Upon retrieving three chocolate ice cream cones, he took my money and said in a tone that leaned far closer to indifferent than it did to impressed, “Sabes… tu español no es tan malo,” (meaning “You know, your Spanish is not too bad”). Deep end! Deep end! Abyss ahead! I blinked, rapidly. Then I grappled, wrestled, and explained, “mi esposa… is una… maestra… de Español… y una… Mexicana,” which, simply translated, means, “my wife is a Spanish teacher and also Mexican…” but when listened to with a more exacting ear, one hears something more along the lines of “my wife is a Spanish teacher and also Mexican and I feel awkward and apologetic for my culturally cataract-infested eyesight and marrow-deep Anglo-Saxon-ness…” The paletero simply nodded and smiled while I took my change, and my kids began the work of getting as many chocolate-flavored stains on their clothes as humanly possible in the short distance between our sidewalk and the front door.

I am, indeed, horrifically self-conscious about my ineptitude when it comes to learning languages, and my thump-my-head and kick-myself mentality only gets exacerbated by the eye-widening awe I feel when overhearing a foreign language spoken in conversation. They seem so earthy yet so liquid. I simply love the sound of certain languages! Spanish, when coming out of a more confident mouth than mine, is a beautiful language: warm, energetic and playful, almost ticklish to the ear. I can also recall hearing Arabic for the first time, sitting in the family room of one of my oldest friend’s, Shabbir, and listening to him talk with his grandparents in the other room, and thinking I should have a blanket and picnic basket with me – the rapidity of it, the sizzle and pop of the words; I felt like I was enjoying a fireworks show! I’ve always loved the sound of the French language as well. In college, Mike, a friend of mine who is fluent in French, attempted, sadly and unsuccessfully, to teach me some conversational phrases. In sharing a desk with me and realizing my linguistic limitations, his lessons quickly devolved into simple vocabulary, teaching me the French word for anything within sight: glasses (lunettes), pen (stylo), book (livre). So, if I ever find myself wanting to get a near-sighted French author to autograph a copy of his or her novel, then I’m in luck. Otherwise, as with Spanish, I’m lingually lost, dragged under by the riptide. I hold nothing against the language though; I still admire it, finding it more and more beautiful each time I happen across in crowded places. In fact, if by some chance development, scientists discover a spot on the electromagnetic spectrum, maybe between infrared and radar or perhaps just west of gamma rays, where languages visually register and can be seen issuing forth from the voice box, I imagine the French language looking like the unfurling of silken, multi-colored ribbons, each more vibrant and translucent than the last. English, on the other hand, often times stumbles off the tongue and conjures up images amounting to a generous mouthful of gravel, and not the high quality Home Depot landscaping-grade grit either but more like aged, abandoned parking lot rubble, freckled with flecks of tire rubber, cigarette ash, and more than a little dog shit.

I know that all of this should leave me feeling frustrated, perhaps isolated and depressed – cut off from worlds within worlds (or rather words) due to my myopic linguistic limitations, and sometimes my mind moves in these directions, but more often than not, I chose to look at it from a completely different perspective, one of wonderment. We can decide to face things that are new, different, or otherwise unknown to us with fear or anger or rejection. We can be satisfied in what we know as all we need to know and discard anything that doesn’t fit in that design. Or… we can instead take them as keyholes affording us a peak into rooms that remind us how much of the world is still available to us to explore. I appreciate being faced with such reminders from time to time, and for that I say thanks, gracias, dank, grazie, merci…

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

O Flaneur’s Turtle how do I love thee, let me count the ways–or rather, let me try, only try, unfortunately, to count the ways–so fecund are the ways and so paltry are my number crunching abilities, regardless of how assiduously I work to transform, like Cinderella, this wretched paltriness into a blessed abundance.

Turtle LoveConfined to exactitude’s absence, I must turn to Plan B and be satisfied with a mere approximation of the number of ways I love “The Turtle,” settling on the word “myriad” to give some hint of their plenitude. Myriad. Okay. So the ways are myriad, yet that still leaves unclear their quality, does it not?

Perhaps: so let me answer the quality question by stating categorically that, in my view, the quality of my love for the Flaneur knows no surcease. That’s because those myriad ways always connect to a deeply felt trust that the quality of the Flaneur and all its postings (which is what Mr. Michael Stelzer Jocks likes to call Flaneur submissions) reaches towards the heavens. And should they fall short of heaven and its perfection or a writer’s understanding or wish for perfection, they come sufficiently close that readers never need fear after reading a post, they’ll lack nourishment and arrive home hungry.

Nonetheless should you find shortcomings even contradictions in my writing or the writings of others, please consider, dear Flaneurite, you divine turtle dove, that those contradictions are the result, according to Mr. Walt Whitman, of the multitude of stuff we’ve somehow managed to create and the multitude of stuff we’ve become. Which has led me to conclude, finally, that if Walt Whitman wasn’t worried about contradictions, neither should we.

Moreover, by now out of grade school for years, it’s time to put away some of the admonitions of our childhood and realize that contradictions can be our friends. They needn’t spell disaster for both sides of the contradiction can prove to be correct. That’s part of the great lesson fecundity teaches us.

After all, can’t an evening breeze be both serene and disturbing? The chocolate be bittersweet? And a heavy Hollandaise enjoy a certain piquant and paradoxical lightness? Moreover, doesn’t our effort to describe the particulars of a specific situation often require us to conjure up from the deep numerous numbers of metaphors and similes rather than simply stringing together a list of single syllable qualities–hot, cold, blue, green, tall, short?

And, Flaneur’s Turtle, in addition to the above reasons for my love, I want to give you a few more. For instance, let me tell you how I love thee for persuading Paul Gaszak to eloquently defend group work against the slings and arrows of callow students complaining about a pedagogy which they don’t realize will enhance their lives and polish their future; and Michael to explain what books need to do to gain his affection, and how war most often erupts out of passions deeper and more complex than the love of lucre; and me to wax foolishly about Mr. Marc Trestman’s shortcomings before he’s directed so much as a single practice session with the Bears; and Jenny Jocks Stelzer to give us a taste and feel for her hip hop happiness; and Tricia Lunt to describe the mystical enjoyment of a single class or a single moment in that class where a lone student suddenly gets “it”; and Blake Whitmore to brilliantly explain why Breaking Bad ain’t bad–rather the reverse! It’s great, greater even than the Sopranos trumpeting their bric a brac brand of joy to the delight of millions of people over millions and millions of fast paced minutes.

True, this ain’t the New Yorker, or the Atlantic Monthly, or the Paris Review, but it ain’t beanbag, either. Through the Flaneur, we who have provided it bunches of posts have engaged full force that mysterious medium somewhere out there called cyber space and made it a home for our energies and hopes, our observations and insights, and our always admirable wish to enlighten, entertain, and share with fellow scribes and readers the ineffable delight we find in jointly producing the printed word.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Group Work Cartoon

During my sophomore year of college, my Environmental Science professor assigned a project for us to get in groups as “political parties” and present on environmental issues. I hated group work and I pleaded with my professor until he let me work alone.

Each group had to name their party.

I called myself the “One Man Party.”

(Hard to believe I wasn’t more popular in college.)

On the surface, I claimed I hated group work for all the same reasons my students complain about it:

  • “I can do everything better by myself.”
  • “People are lazy and will stick me with all the work.”
  • “I don’t want my grade to depend on other people.”
  • “It’s hard to coordinate time outside of class to work on projects.”

Those reasons can sometimes be true. However, for me, there was a far more likely reason I feared group work:

I was terribly shy.

I knew no one in that science class. The idea of asking “strangers” to let me in their group was horrifying. I wished the teacher had just assigned groups. Or, I wished some other group had noticed me sitting there with that sad, lost look on my face and asked me if I wanted to join their group. When neither happened, I protested.

I railed against group work many times in college and high school. However, it was amazing that I never protested when I was in a group with friends (people I was comfortable with) or girls I had a crush on (people I was terrified of, but with whom I needed an icebreaker).

For all the students who claim to dislike or even hate group work, there may be some deeper elements contributing beyond those surface-level complaints:

  1. There may be some social anxiety, like I had, that wasn’t specifically about group work, but about communicating with people in general.
  2. We may have had a bad experience that has soured our outlook. We fear that one student who won’t do anything NOT because it has happened in every group, but because that situation burned us once before.
  3. As people, we will glorify our own successes and emphasize the failures of others. We remember the time we did well on a group project by ourselves, and we’ll forgive ourselves if we don’t do well in that same situation because we were stuck doing it alone. But if a group member doesn’t pull their weight in one project, we never let them live it down. We want it etched on their tombstone.
  4. We don’t want to admit that we have played all of the roles, both good and bad, throughout all of our group work experiences. “I’m ALWAYS the one who does ALL the work.” Are you really? In my own experiences, I have had groups where I was the leader, ones where I was the slacker, and everything in between.
  5. Finally, one of the biggest reasons we dislike group work is because we STINK at it. And we don’t like things we’re bad at.

Thus, we need to learn how to work in groups.

Think of a good restaurant. You walk in. A host seats you. A waiter comes and takes your order. The bartender mixes the drinks. The chef make the food. The runners bring out the food.  The busser clears the table.

On the surface, it may seem like all of those people are working solo and doing their own tasks.

NO! That’s group work! Or, let me rephrase: that’s group work when it’s done correctly! It is a group of people collaborating to produce one final goal: a good dining experience for the customer.

When group work is being done well, it ceases to be a bunch of people working on a variety of tasks and becomes ONE unit working toward a common goal.

If the entire staff was hanging out at the front waiting to seat people and no one was serving or cooking, it would be a disaster. This is obvious; we all know this. Yet, too often, we don’t apply this understanding to group work done in an academic setting.

We need to learn how to establish leadership and structure in our groups in order to be efficient and effective. We must determine the goal and formulate a plan to get there. We need to make decisions on how to communicate.

Then, we must establish what roles are required and which group members are best suited for the roles. For example, on a football team, a great quarterback should be a leader, have a great arm, be smart, be mobile enough to elude pass rushers. However, take that player and slide him over to Left Tackle and he will be terrible, because a LT needs an entirely different body type and skill set.

When you find people who have the skills for each position and place them in the correct positions, that greatly impacts the team’s ability to succeed.

Yet, despite all I’m saying, one of the biggest complaints I hear from students about group work is not that group work doesn’t happen in the real world, but that it is not the same in academia as in the real world, because in the workplace, people have an incentive (keeping their job) to do their work and do it well. Students sometimes assume that all the hiccups and heartaches we encounter in the classroom suddenly smooth out in the workplace.

Wrong. Wrong. WRONG.

All of the same problems we fear in class can (and will) happen in every workplace: someone will carry too much weight; someone will slack; someone will get bossy; someone will mess up; someone will miss deadlines; someone will not answer e-mails or phone calls.

When this happens in the classroom, we want to throw the “bad” student under the bus for the sake of our grade.

Yet, in the real world, we can’t just throw our hands up, complain, whine to our boss, quit, and let the business fold. We find a way to keep working and finish the job.

So, it’s not that the same problems don’t occur in the real world; it’s that, through practice and experience, people who have honed their skills working with groups will know how to troubleshoot those problems when they happen.

And that is why we need practice in groups in the safer confines of our collegiate setting so that we can be fully prepared for group work when it really starts to count the most.

After all, whether you realize it or not, no matter what field you’re going into and what job you want, you will be working with other people for the rest of your lives.