Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Reflections on Going Back to Work

When I left the U.S. in 1989 to start this second round of living in Japan, I felt hounded by the presence all around of AIDS. It was a relief to suddenly find myself in a place that knew little of AIDS and wanted to know even less. I had just graduated from Stanford and my second round of being a student had come to a close and I was ready for a new chapter to begin. But I was also ready to run and hide. The six years at Stanford were among the richest years of my life, for many reasons, but they were lived out in the context of AIDS, and the constant reminder that life could be cut short.

Japan, from my perspective, is a deliciously self-involved place – probably no different from most of the world in this, but I don’t know most of the world. It pushed and pulled on my sense of what is important and it forced me to set up a new life and live it in a different way. It was just the thing, this pressure to start over.

I’ve been back in California now for eight months. A few days from now I’m returning to my life in Japan, and I’m reflecting on the parallels to that trip in the fall of 1989. This time it is not AIDS hanging in the air – it’s not touching me as directly, that is – it’s the war. And this time I suspect I will not find Japan a refuge.

Some people are good at shutting the war out. The San Francisco Chronicle is doing a service by putting all the war news in a special daily section apart from the rest of the newspaper. Somebody there knows how to run a newspaper. I understand people have turned away from the bad news of the war and are watching things like Divorce Court and Matlock.
But I’m not good at shutting out the war and I don’t want to shut out the war. I didn’t shut AIDS out either, as it turned out, but set up a seminar called “Cultural Responses to the AIDS Crisis” and set about looking at culture through the lens of the pandemic. I focus on language and culture in my teaching and it was a way to integrate my work with the larger context, a way to engage with the monster instead of trying to stuff it in a closet and wonder when it was going to smash its way out and get me.

I’m wondering now how I’m going to deal with the war in the classroom under the rubric of culture. It’s going to be even harder to keep myself from using the classroom as a pulpit for my own strong feelings that the war is between a thuggish autocrat and an imperial power tripping on its hubris. Not that I am ashamed of my views or that I believe they need to stay out of the classroom. What I’m worried about is that my rage at the world will keep me from doing what I think I’m supposed to be there for. I’m a child of the 60s and I define education as a subversive activity. You do that best by holding things up to the light and not preaching about them.

I should wear around my neck a sign, a caveat:

Warning. The person with the power to give you a grade in this course and the power to determine who speaks in this classroom holds the following views:

• War is a bad idea at the best of times. At this time it is unmitigated disaster.
• Although I am an American, my attitude toward the government of my country is one of embarrassment. And that’s on a good day.
• I am distrustful of the media, distrustful of popular opinion, and generally distrustful of authority.

I don’t mean to suggest that they disagree with me at their peril. I’m notorious for rewarding people (with smiles and good words, if not automatically with grades) for disagreeing with me and sometimes the kids become disagreeable simply because they think they will please me that way.

But the caveat is only part of what is probably necessary. A clear and open warning would be a cop-out. Far more effective, if far more challenging, would be carrying on as usual and not making the war the center of focus in the classroom. And not using the caveat as a way of covering my ass when I rant and rave.

Way back at the start of it all, when I was in a teacher training program getting my master’s degree, one of my professors told me there were three topics one should avoid at all costs in the classroom: sex, politics and religion. I thanked him for the tip, and made a note that if I wanted to create an environment where thinking would be sure to take place, I would probably do best to make full use of the topics of sex, politics or religion. In 35 years, that notion has served me well. My students are between 18 and 23. The warning about religion was meant for classes in the American social context, and their eyes glaze over at any mention of religion, but they are deeply curious about how to approach the issue of politics in their lives. Sex is dangerous, if only because once broached it’s hard to go back to anything else.

I teach a course in argumentation. That might sound strange, but the Japanese propensity to avoid confrontation leaves them with few skills at putting forth their own views against a strong opponent. I love these kids now and again and now and again I hear things out of their mouths that are stunning in their sensitivity and insight. It pains me that they would hold such worthy views and not be able to defend them. So I offer a course where I think I’m helping to do something about that lacuna. I know it’s going to be hard to keep the war from entering this classroom.

A second course I teach has the name “Critical Reading.” One purpose of the course is to turn reading from a passive event to an active one, to make people understand there are strategies for psyching out the author’s background and point of view and asking how it might affect the objective content. Another purpose is to learn to ask why one should take seriously what is in front of them, and not suspect there is bias in the accidental discovery of this piece of writing and not some other. The information revolution has made reading primarily a question of management of what sources one allows into the consciousness. Not that that wasn’t always what reading was about, but where one was challenged before by a mere five million books in the Stanford library, and 40,000 periodicals the library subscribed to, to give examples from my own experience, now one is faced in the internet with bits of information that run into the billions and trillions. The days of looking at a chunk of writing and making sense of the words and calling that reading are gone forever.

In this course, I hand out reading selections for analysis from a number of genres, news and news analysis and opinion pieces from journalism, research reports, working papers, theory-building pieces from the academic genres, history, polemic, and fluff for contrast. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what the genre is because the lines are blurred. But it’s going to be hard here, too, to keep from using the war as the framework on which to hang all the discussion, and I’m struggling with whether I’m overly concerned in the first place.

Those are my so-called “English” courses. I teach three others, as well. Seminars that meet once a week on the topics of “Ethics,” “Liberation Theory” and my graduate seminar in “The Meaning of Culture.” The three seminars are eyeball-to-eyeball small group sessions and I get to go more deeply into things and get more personal. Students often become friends and there is quite a bit of socializing that comes out of these classes. Feedback shows I have a much stronger influence over the kids in my seminars than I do in the regular classes. Groupthink is an ever-present possibility.

I’m talking out loud here because that’s where my head is. I turned the corner a couple days ago, as I inevitably do when moving from one hemisphere to the other three times every year for the past fourteen years. I’m feeling heavy-hearted indeed about leaving my home in Berkeley, the day-to-day with Taku and my other chosen family and friends. I’m not looking forward to the hostility that exists in the workplace, to the soul-killing bureaucracy and busywork. This sabbatical has been a gift from the gods. To be mundane and fair, it’s actually a gift from the very same workplace I am now dreading returning to. How can I fault it after it has allowed me this time to think and read and write and recharge my batteries?

I’m talking about returning to the classroom because that’s what makes it all worth while. That and the money to remodel my bathrooms, of course. That’s where my head is because that’s where I’m hoping to find some solace against the choice of connecting with a world where AIDS and an imperialistic government supply the context in which everything else takes place, on the one hand, or tuning out, on the other.

I had a nice little chat yesterday with the tile man. He’s from Finland. Wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but ended up tiling people’s bathrooms instead. Delightful man. Master craftsman. I caught him sitting and staring at his work when he finished the grout yesterday. “Caught you,” I said. “Yes,” he laughed. “I love to stare at my own work.”

“I’m jealous of you,” I told him. “You get to do a job and within two or three days you get to admire the finished product. I go into a classroom and I won’t know for twenty or thirty years whether I’ve had a positive impact.” He thought I was nuts, no doubt, but it was a nice moment when two people got to say nice things to each other and admire each other’s work. The dignity that comes from doing a good job may seem trivial stuff but I don’t think it is at all. I think it actually helps contend with a world gone awry.

My bags are packed. I’m leaving tomorrow.

Strange how the mind works. How vulnerable I am. How dependent I am on my job for a way to deal with sadness and disappointment. Some people get that boost from their families. My loved ones give it to me too, of course, but I am really tied up in my job.

What irony, then, that the sadness which I hope will dissipate once I get back to work has to do with going back to work, and the situation I’m looking forward to leaving behind is the life I am looking forward to coming back to after retirement.

I’ll figure it all out someday, I’m sure.

March 26, 2003