Sunday, October 14, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Reading Like This


“I am left bereft of both pleasure and satisfaction, and yet I cannot stop trying to figure it all out. Jouissance works in a similar way. It is a driving force that brings with it regret and pain even as one seeks for more. Jouissance maintains an illusion of mastery. If I keep writing, if I keep studying, if I keep researching, I will somehow beat racism. ”
––Tapo Chimbganda, The Classroom as Privileged Space: Psychoanalytical Paradigms for Social Justice in Pedagogy

Thank God, I had the opportunity to teach a stand-alone reading class last semester. It seems it’s only when we teach something we truly learn it. Somehow I’d completed college and two graduate programs without the reading strategies necessary to integrate what I’ve been learning during my sabbatical project, which you can learn more about here.

Reading texts thick with unfamiliar concepts and fresh ideas has become an almost physical experience. I open these books, pencil in hand, pacing my reading rate by the marks it makes. As I go, the pencil underlines, questions, and fills margins with stars, exclamation points, and connecting thoughts and comments. Rather than merely listening to an author, the experience is akin to having a conversation with them. They make statements, and my pencil offers its emoji-like responses.

Each writer’s words flow through and across my own consciousness triggering subtle neurological responses. A brain cell alights and suddenly an idea on one page connects to another in a novel way. Like a magic-trick, terms I’d never come across suddenly describe things I’ve often seen in my own world but had left unnamed. Therefore, what had only moments before been nearly invisible to me crystalizes into a tangible and meaningful shape. It’s humbling, enlivening, and thrilling all at once to experience this sensation page after page––concepts that explain learning conditions I’ve worked within for all my professional life, but have never been able to truly understand, come fully and freshly into view.

Without sabbatical, I’m not sure I could expand my thinking with such freedom and abandon. Had my sabbatical not been granted, I would have had to cram this kind of intense study into a semester break (which are longer than most professionals’ and for which I remain ever grateful).
But unbeknownst to me, such cramming narrows what I’d be able to take from what I read.

With one eye on the calendar, I would feel pressure to pull out only those ideas that applied directly to what I’d be teaching next. Even more limiting, I think I’d unconsciously reject ideas counter to what I was already doing in my classrooms. Taking in a radically new perspective is almost impossible if one lacks the time and space necessary for the reinvention and integration that are a meaningful idea’s natural consequence.

And because much of what I’m reading describes system-wide structural phenomena that hurts students (and by extension society), it will ultimately, require collective degrees of change to ameliorate, meaning it requires changes in my classrooms, yes, but far beyond it as well. When I return to campus, I will need to attend to both, which means I must be in community with others to create transformation.

A sabbatical framework means I’m meant to think this broadly. Certainly keeping in mind my campus, a rural community college on the southern end of the Silicon Valley, and my role on it but also education as a whole and its larger purposes, imagining alongside others what it might be and become.

Surprisingly, I’m finding this expansiveness invites greater clarity and precision instead of less. I find I see both a general context and a particular place with greater distinction. I now recognize there are patterns in the ways educators are being pushed to name problems and solutions on our campus. It isn’t that California has suddenly and magically aligned with the top-down reforms also happening in other states. Rather, my college like every other campus in the US, and maybe even all over the developed world, is being pushed toward certain types of educational solutions because global business and political interests want it that way and not because that is what is best or most humane for students and workers alike.

The thinkers I’m now engaging offer alternative perspectives and a critique of solutions being promoted across the nation and on my home campus as well. However, I find my brain isn’t as nimble or as masterful as it once was at retaining new ideas. That’s where last term’s reading class also comes into play. I know what needs to happen in order to integrate the thoughts of writers and scholars as varied as Chimbganda (quoted above) George Yancy, and Gilda Ochoa. It’s all in the reading strategies I taught last term.

Here’s what I’m doing to make it most likely that what I’m reading won’t disappear into a gaseous vagueness once I put a book down.

As described above, I read with pencil in hand. I mark key ideas and anything that excites me (only sometimes ever the same thing) by using explanation points, stars, or simply a check mark in the margin between paragraph and page’s edge. Sometimes, if I’m unfamiliar with a term, introduced to a person I don’t know, or a new concept I circle it. Often by page’s end, these have become clearer and are already entering my own vocabulary. Sometimes not. Nevertheless, I carry on, reading at a pace slightly quicker than feels entirely comfortable. Counter intuitively, that’s what makes it most likely I’ll be able to makes sense of what I read.


Occasionally, I slow down enough to make a small comment about what I’ve read, noting how one idea relates to another in a different text or even something I’ve experienced or heard first-hand.

Often, I underline something in order not to lose it, sometimes half a paragraph or more at a time. What I really want to hold close, I box up with my pencil, so it sits on the page bounded on all sides. Sometimes a portion of the page is boxed and dancing with explanation points and also stars because for me the words are burning with power. They’ve become precious to me, and my marks signify their vibrant energy and make it easier to find when I need to share them with a friend.

And then there are those ideas that seem so vital, so important, so filled with a potential to make education better, to free not only students but teachers too, that I mark them with a heart––a heart to signify what I hope stays with me for decades of teaching to come.

One text, then another. A new dialogue between writer and reader arises. A fresh voice enters my conscious, and I sense the old author’s voice drifting away––still a part of a background melody, perhaps, but the lyrics no longer as fierce as they had been only hours ago. I know I’m in danger of being unable to share what I’ve learned with the integrity required. For this there is only one solution––the annotated bibliography.

I’ve adapted this old composition classroom form in the following way: I write an overview of the text, then talk about how it applies to the sabbatical project as a whole. Next, I pull out important points in ways that follow the path of the book. Finally, I include the quotes and ideas that meant most to me. In typing these out, word-for-word, I find the author’s voice becomes distinct and sticky once again.

I wish I could say this was a quick process. But hours of work go into these bibliographies. Some are only a page or two, but a dense text like CharlesMann’s 1491, with its dozens of facts per paragraph, grew to 20 pages.

To complete an annotated bibliography, it’s not enough to read the text once marking as I go. I have to skim each book a second time, sometimes even a third, reframing each page in one or two key phrases that chart an author’s line of thinking across sections and chapters. This is what allows me to retranslate their ideas it into my own words. It is in this way, that these finally and thoroughly integrate into my consciousness, and I see more clearly how they relate to other parts of the sabbatical project.

It’s tedious. It’s time-consuming. It’s delicious. And I very much look forward with sharing the results of this labor with you.

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