Hi and welcome to the updated AEPL blog!

Stay a while, browse around and join in on the conversations on this site.

Please check this blog often for announcements, member news and events. In addition to posting announcements on an “as-needed” basis, check back on the last Sunday of each month for a new “Sunday Meditation,” a longer, topical exploration written by a member and/or interested guest blogger.

We are always looking for guest bloggers, so please email cwenger@shepherd.edu if you are interested in contributing!


AEPL Virtual Symposium: Humanizing Online Teaching

Nate Mickelson announced a wonderful opportunity for AEPL members to gather online and rethink our online teaching strategies. Members can attend free, and encourage your colleagues to join AEPL and attend! Registration: https://www.aeplevents.org/

Humanizing Online Teaching
A Virtual Symposium 
Sponsored by the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning

Wednesday, July 22, 2020
11am – 5:30pm Eastern / 8am – 2:30pm Pacific
via Zoom

Teachers and students have adapted to remote and online teaching in remarkable ways over the past few months. This work has involved intense personal and pedagogical traumas, as well as some moments of inspiration and perseverance. Even as we have learned how to use new teaching tools and techniques, we have also done everything we can to remain connected to our students and one another on a human level. The Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL) invites you to share your experiences, hopes, and challenges about online teaching during this one-day symposium. Featuring dynamic presentations from Michelle Pacansky-Brock, Fabiola Torres, Katie Linder, Doug Hesse, and Kathleen Blake Yancey, the symposium will highlight strategies for humanizing online teaching through practices of healing and interpersonal connections. The presentations will:

  • Articulate the larger context for humane online teaching and offer hope for the future
  • Describe specific practices for promoting social justice through online teaching
  • Explore how we can stay centered in our values as we confront the trauma and challenges facing our communities
  • Advocate for how teaching online can help us refocus on the most promising and humane practices we use when teaching in person

In addition to the presentations, the symposium will include structured opportunities for writing and small-group discussions. Participants will leave with ideas for new teaching strategies and an enhanced sense of belonging in a larger teaching community. 

Gearing Up for the June AEPL Conference: Some Resources on Buber’s Encounters

The theme for this summer’s AEPL Conference is “The Art of Encounter in Teaching and Learning.” The conference call references a sentence from Buber’s I and Thou: “All real living [and thus all real education] is meeting.” Buber wanted us to see encounters as a generative and generous connection between mutual, receptive, endlessly becoming, alive selves.

I was first introduced to Martin Buber’s seminal work I and Thou (1923) in college, but, as you can easily  imagine, I only understood it at a basic, post-adolescent level. I’ve been sent back to Buber’s ideas a few times over the years, and I and Thou remained in my library despite many book-cullings over the years as I moved around the country.

So it’s been wonderful to get back to thinking about I/Thou and I/It relationships again. For those of you who want a quick dip into Buber’s thought, here are a few places to start:

Kirsch, Adam. “Divine Guidance: Modernity, Faith, and Martin Buber.” New Yorker, Vol. XCV, Iss. 6 (May 6, 2019).
–A nice overview of Buber’s life and thought in a New Yorker article, prompted by the publication of Mendes-Flohr’s new biography of Buber, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent (Yale University Press, 2019).

Zank, Michael and Braiterman, Zachary, “Martin Buber,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/buber/
–A standard overview of Buber’s philosophies with an extensive bibliography

Buber’s poem “Power and Love”
–Google Books has posted excerpts of Maurice S. Friedman’s 3-volume biography Martin Buber’s Life and Work (1981) which includes

A “Brainpickings” post by Maria Popova on Buber connects (more or less successfully) Buber’s thought to other current trends in thinking.

–Ruth Mirtz, Kansas State University Polytechnic

2020 Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning Conference — June 25-28, 2020

Information about the 2020 Conference is now available! The theme is “The Art of Encounter in Teaching and Learning.” We have a wonderful lineup of featured presenters and pre-conference workshops on the schedule. Find out the details about registration and lodging on the conference website. The conference flier is also available.

Proposals for interactive talks and workshops are due Dec. 1, 2019, for first round consideration. See the conference website for details and suggested topics.

I was pleased to attend the conference last year. Both the setting at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park and the conference itself was a refreshing change of pace: engaged colleagues talking about their passions, surrounded by the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. I hope to see you there in June!

Doing or Being? Discovering Classroom Communities: Part 2

Keith Duffy

The following is the second installment of a two-part article. Part one, which was published as the previous post, asks the question: Must teachers always actively “build” classroom communities, or can communities reveal themselves without us exerting our power? Part two examines the general philosophy behind Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s book The Spirituality of Imperfection which answers that question in a surprising—and perhaps counterintuitive—way.

In the part one of this series, I started to explore whether classroom communities can be found by the members in those communities. In other words, can we as teachers take a more passive role in the formation of communities, allow them to establish themselves and evolve without our singular force or influence? Or do classroom communities, by their very nature, simply have to be fabricated and shaped by the hand of a teacher exerting his or her will? I realize I am presenting this in a rather binary (and maybe reductionist) way, and there are many shades of gray in between these two positions. However, my motive for introducing this as a polarizing issue is to raise the question: How much force (how much of our individual wills) do we actually exert in the formation and functioning of our classroom communities?

As I discussed in part one, when I’ve pondered this issue and reflected on my own practice, I’ve often turned to one of my favorite books of all time for insight: The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. In their book, Kurtz and Ketcham present a broad historical concept, representing a wide variety of doctrines, that suggests a particular kind of orientation or attitude that makes us available to our spiritual selves. As the word imperfection implies, the central tenet holds that we, as human beings, are essentially flawed. The source of our humanity—and hence our ability to be with other humans in community—is our very ordinary and imperfect nature. Though we may strive for perfection, such striving often separates us from our humanity, hence, our spirituality. Perfection denies the reality of our humanity, and it is within our human-ness as flawed beings that our spirituality (and ultimately community) finds its home.


These are ideas are lofty, for sure. But as I dig a little deeper into the specifics of this philosophy, I begin to see how, just maybe, we’ve seriously limited the definition of community as literacy educators. Kurtz and Ketcham suggest it is this common, shared acknowledgement of flawedness that creates mutuality, the condition that allows people to come together without fear or facades. In essence, a spirituality of imperfection rests upon the paradoxical statement that people can be “made whole by the acceptance of limitation,” allowing them to participate wholly in community (Kurtz and Ketcham 197). According to this perspective, there are four key components surrounding the way communities form and operate: (1) community is dis-covered, or uncovered, when we (2) allow ourselves to be found by others who are (3) different, or limited, in the same ways we are. Finally, (4) because human beings are naturally imperfect, any relationship we enter into with other human beings can only ever be limited. For this reason, communities are limited, and this means they are inclusive and exclusive simultaneously.

In conversations with my colleagues about this last point, I’ve understandably experienced some resistance; for dedicated teachers, the idea of classrooms being exclusive in any way seems anathema to what we are trying to accomplish. But under the umbrella of imperfection, communities of any kind—regardless of purpose or location—are paradoxical. Since communities are composed of limited human beings, communities have both inclusive and exclusive forces within them (Kurtz and Ketcham 229).

The first time I encountered this idea of community, I bristled. My first thought: This contradicts my training as a composition teacher! As evidenced by the titles of the how-to books introducing part one of this article (again, see here), the pedagogical emphasis in literacy education has clearly been on creating community, not allowing imperfect human beings to dis-cover it. In our teaching tradition, classroom exercises are designed to help bring people together to solve common problems. As teachers, we do things, and ask our students to do things, in order to build community. Various classroom routines are established, and language is shaped, to help promote and nurture a communal identity.

I’m not saying these approaches are unnecessary or should be abandoned. But it’s important to notice how suddenly, in this universe of doing, there is very little room for being. What about the importance of being? The first two statements made by Kurtz and Ketcham clearly emphasize being over doing; community is dis-covered when we allow ourselves to be found by others. From this passive perspective, being becomes a kind of bridge that draws humans together. And doing, always doing, could very well short-circuit our coming together. Personally, I think this conflict is something worth paying attention to, if nothing else.

I’m a fan of stretching ideas to their limits. So, following this imperfect reasoning, let’s even consider this possibility:  Community may not be something that can even be planned. Likewise, classroom communities may not be entities that we, as teachers, possess or even control. I understand it may sound like I’m peddling mayhem and disarray; however, I’m not suggesting we willfully throw our classrooms into chaos or allow them to disintegrate into disorder. But what might happen to our classroom communities if we ponder letting go of them…at least to some degree? Community is absolutely something we can experience if we adopt a certain attitude. Per a spirituality of imperfection, a community is always there, but it needs to be dis-covered, somehow brought into our experience; a community must be allowed to reveal itself. Hence, relinquishing our will-to-control a community might be the first move in a new direction. For some teachers, this is a no-brainer; even as a student myself oh so many years ago, I experienced teachers who seemed to embrace this idea in a natural way. But for others—those of us who tend to grip that steering wheel, white-knuckled, with both hands (I’m looking at my own reflection in the rearview mirror here)—this concept can be alien and scary…and that automatically makes it feel like a challenge worth accepting.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the somewhat polarizing idea that our classroom communities may very well be both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. The basic question is this: Do communities inherently act to include members or exclude strangers?


In other words, do the boundaries between communities function to keep members in or keep foreigners out? Understandably, there are scholars in literacy education who have strongly argued that if the primary function of a community is to exclude, then this has no place within our pedagogy. I agree with this position. But let’s not ignore Kurtz and Ketcham’s fourth statement above: Within a spirituality of imperfection, communities are comprised of imperfect human beings; communities are, therefore, inherently flawed. And, because communities are flawed, it is highly possible they are both powerfully inclusive and exclusive; paradoxically, the boundaries surrounding most communities—even those of our classrooms—act to keep us together and keep us apart.

Although many see the boundaries between communities as a solely negative force, Kurtz and Ketcham argue that boundaries are important for their positive function: They define us. By setting limits in a way that gives identity, telling us who we are and who we are not, the boundaries between communities make it possible for us to fit, to belong. If we lived our lives with no boundaries whatsoever, it may not be possible for any of us to actually exist. Boundaries establish the real spaces where we live; this is an ancient idea that spans many spiritual doctrines—a boundary is not that through which something ceases to be, but rather that from which something begins to be what is, is free to be what is (Kurtz and Ketcham 237).

From this perspective, the exclusive nature of communities—even though we as teachers may blanche at the thought—allows them to be inclusive, protective; a boundaried community provides members with a place to fit, to learn. In a sense, exclusivity begets inclusivity; both parts of the equation are necessary to discover a community. By acknowledging the essential paradox that undergirds community, we open ourselves and our students up to the possibility of coming together.

How does a teacher put any of these complex ideas about community into practice? To be completely honest, praxis is not my strong suit. I suspect some of my own pedagogy has been positively influenced by these concepts, but I hesitate to offer up any concrete ideas or plans. In these instances, my go-to quote is from the article “Grace, in Pedagogy” by Richard L. Graves: “(Grace) is not something that can be called up at will, planned on, or included in a syllabus. Grace cannot be formally included or incorporated into a curriculum or mandated into a school system” (16, 20). Embracing these sometimes paradoxical ideas can be challenging; putting them into practice in our classrooms even more so.

Nevertheless, I pose the challenge: How do you approach community in your classroom? Have you ever tried letting go of your classroom community to see what might be dis-covered by everyone in the room? Or perhaps you’ve always nurtured learning communities without emphasizing doing and without having to possess or control them? If so, feel free to share your thoughts. Likewise, if any of the ideas I’ve explored here seem impractical or unrealistic, please share in the comments below.


Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.


Works Cited

Graves, Richard. “Grace, in Pedagogy.” The Spiritual Side of Writing. Ed. Regina Paxton Foehr and Susan A. Schiller. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997. 15-24.

Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam, 1994


Doing or Being? Discovering Classroom Communities: Part 1

Keith Duffy

The following is the first installment of a two-part article. Part one asks the question: Must teachers always actively “build” classroom communities, or can communities reveal themselves without us exerting our power? Part two, to be published presently, will examine the general philosophy behind Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s book The Spirituality of Imperfection which answers that question in a surprising—and perhaps counterintuitive—way.

A quick search for the key phrase “building classroom communities” at Amazon will retrieve approximately 250 distinct book titles. Spanning from 2017 to 1990, the products range from nuts-and-bolts workbooks and planning guides to philosophical treatises regarding ways to construct positive, productive learning environments. The pupils being discussed by the various authors range from budding elementary learners to jaded college students. The books focus on traditional classrooms where students and teachers are rubbing elbows on a daily basis to virtual classrooms where no personal contact occurs. A third of these titles include the exact phrase “building classroom communities,” while others opt for slight variations on the pedagogical theme: building character, building cooperation, building equity, building confidence, building understanding. You could conduct the same search at any online bookstore or library database and find similar results.

My point is this: For the last 30 years (and likely much longer), a slick educational industry has evolved that focuses solely on informing teachers how to successfully devise, implement, and manage—in other words, how to build—a classroom community worthy of our students’ time and attention.

So, what’s wrong with this? From the perspective of a composition teacher who has spent the last 25 years collecting battle scars in the trenches (and loving it), I can confidently say there’s nothing wrong with a little help. Teachers old and new need as many resources, suggestions, practices, and philosophies they can stuff into their teaching bags. I don’t know about you, but I’ve completely reimagined my composition classroom a dozen times since my professional marathon began in 1993, and I’m likely to redecorate my lesson plans several more times over the next decade before eventually calling it quits. We all understand that a healthy dose of collaboration among students and teachers leads to a more productive learning environment. Although there’s always disagreement about how to best accomplish this, we are mostly convinced that the classroom should be a safe, secure environment where students feel comfortable taking risks while having opportunities to engage in routine community-building activities of some kind.

Right about now you might be thinking to yourself: ‘This is precisely the moment where he’s going to use a pregnant transition word like however.’ Congratulations. You’re paying attention.

While the advantages and disadvantages of specific collaborative pedagogies have been discussed at length by teachers and researchers, I raise the issue of educational community-building activities for one purpose only: Our emphasis on doing things to create a sense of community in our classrooms is in direct conflict with some broadly defined spiritual approaches to community that emphasize being over doing. And some of these spiritual approaches might serve our classroom communities in ways that a cleverly marketed workbook never could.


Communally speaking, here’s the big question: What would happen if students and teachers stopped doing and started being? I acknowledge that I’m presenting the issue in a very binary (and probably reductionist) way, but my motive here is to get everyone thinking about how much force (how much of our individual wills) we apply to the formation and functioning of our learning communities.

As you might imagine from that nebulous question, I’m not proposing any concrete ideas about how to envision or develop a spiritually sensitive classroom community; fashioning a curriculum from spiritual insights flies against the ephemeral nature of the spirit. Even worse, doing so would force us back into the same limited space occupied by those 250 books on Amazon I just mentioned. I generally agree with the widely held notion that the spiritual and material worlds are (at least sometimes) incommensurate. Indeed, the word spiritual was originally coined to denote “that which is not material” (Adler 1). For me, the being versus doing dilemma comes down to this: What variety of shapes might a community take—and what sorts of roles might students and teachers play—when the community itself is not manufactured but is found (or even better, dis-covered or uncovered) by those engaged in the enterprise of learning? What would happen if I decided to not exert control over the learning community in the classroom? What would happen if it established itself and evolved on its own with me as a member and not as its maker?

When I’ve approached the edge of this cliff in my practice (usually by examining and questioning my own penchant for overcontrolling the classroom, which I’ve openly confessed to in numerous articles over the years), I’ve sought insight from a specific source (one of my favorite books of all time): The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.

In the upcoming second installment of this article, which will be published here in a short while, I’ll discuss some specific concepts surrounding the formation of communities as perceived through the spirituality of imperfection lens. But prior to that, I’ll finish this first installment by explaining the basic principles undergirding this philosophy. A spirituality of imperfection is not itself a religious movement or doctrine, and it’s not an idea owned or originated by Kurtz or Ketcham, the authors of the book; instead, it is a broad historical concept that merely suggests a particular kind of orientation or attitude that makes us available to our spiritual selves. As the name implies, a spirituality of imperfection is based upon the idea that we are flawed. The source of our humanity is our very ordinary and imperfect nature. Though many of us strive for perfection, such striving keeps us separate from our humanity, hence, our spirituality. Perfection denies the reality of our humanity, and it is within our human-ness as flawed beings that our spirituality (and ultimately community) finds its home. Following this line of reasoning, any community dis-covered by human beings will be equally imperfect; communities can be negative and positive, inclusive and exclusive, stagnant and productive; all communities have the same limitations as the ordinary human beings who comprise them. Communities exist in a paradox.


I’ll explore some of these ideas in part two of this article later. But for now consider this: A central idea according to a spirituality of imperfection is that community is always present; when human beings are together, a community is always already there. In other words, community does not have to be made or built or fashioned by any single person. Instead, a more passive perspective suggests community simply has to be dis-covered (uncovered, revealed, choose your own verb) by those imperfect people who constitute it. I realize applying this concept to a classroom may seem unlikely (and possibly even naive). But I’d like readers to seriously ponder the possibilities and feel free to reply here.

Could there be an alternative to building a learning community? How much control do you exert over your own classroom community in its formation? Have you ever overexerted control? As a teacher, have you ever taken steps to “let go” of your classroom to see how the learning community might establish itself? Or does this very thought sound antithetical to the idea of learning? On the contrary, perhaps none of these questions apply to you; maybe your teaching style already allows your classroom community the freedom to be found by its members. If so, how does that work and what does that classroom look like? Let us know.

As mentioned, in the upcoming second installment of this article I’ll delve much deeper into the Spirituality of Imperfection and ways it can problematize our existing notions of learning communities as literacy educators. Keep watching this space for part 2 and please leave a comment on part 1!


Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.


Works Cited

Adler, Mortimer J. Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. New York: Scribners, 1995.

Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Bantam, 1994



It’s Time to Go to Work—Time to Write from the Heart, Head, and Hands

The need for contemplation is nothing new, yet since the U.S. election in November 2016 and newly historic and mounting injustice, this need has new urgency. I often find myself riding a roller coaster of emotions—feeling laid low one moment and fired up the next. I swing down into anger, sadness, fear, exhaustion, regret, disgust, shame, and hurt. Then, as though on an upswing, I get inspired when in the company of committed activists and educators—when reorienting toward action, justice, and a vision of the “ought to be.”

I imagine I’m not alone in riding this emotional roller coaster, and within this context, I feel the need to write, write, write. Now, more than ever before.

Some of this writing is just for me, as a meditation practice of processing what my heart, head, and hands have to teach me. Some of this writing involves diving deeper and moving forward with ongoing pedagogical and research projects. And some of this writing is taking me into public spaces, as I have newly embraced blogging at heart-head-hands.com—a space in which I write about the everyday-ness of attempting to live a life for justice.

The blog’s name comes from a contemplative writing exercise I often use in teaching. Giving an “expanded perspective on learning,” this exercise asks simply:

  • Heart: What are you feeling?
  • Head: What are you thinking?
  • Hands: What are you going to do?

I appreciate this exercise because it communicates the connectedness of our emotions, thoughts, and actions. It recognizes the value of embodied knowledge, which helps us notice what is present and what is absent. It helps us put into words what we implicitly know, but often have trouble naming. And it holds us accountable to our commitments as we write and speak aloud the work we’re called to do.

The day after the November election, I used this exercise with students, holding space for reflection. Some students focused on their emotions (heart), others shared commentary and claims (head), and still others related action plans (hands). I described my own embodied responses—including tight chest, aching muscles, and exhaustion—and my intended actions: “I must write, write, write! Stand tall in my truth, and speak out/up more confidently, courageously, even when afraid.”

Days later, I began blogging.

And a few days after that, I saw these words from Toni Morrison making the rounds on social media, reminding us “This is precisely the time when artists go to work”:


At times throughout my life, I’ve struggled to see myself as an artist. Yet, this is an identity I encourage students and colleagues, friends and family—truly, all of us—to claim as our own.

If we embrace this identity—artist—might we ask some new questions about our everyday work? Questions like:

  • Where do we find inspiration, and how might we inspire others?
  • What needs to be said now, even if it’s been said before?
  • Whose voices need to be amplified, cited, credited, and made visible?
  • How might we better align our everyday lives—in and out of school—with our visions of the “ought to be”?
  • How do we write, research, and teach courageously with the challenges of our time?
  • What contemplative practices help us build this courage—to stand TALL for justice?

As woman in a white, able-bodied, cis-gender, U.S.-born, socioeconomically secure body (and with other embodied identities, many of which index privilege), I am deeply impacted by Morrison’s call to action. Writing in 2004 after the re-election of George W. Bush, Morrison reminds us that artists have the responsibility to heal social injustice.

Responsibility comes with privilege. And responsibility means not speaking on behalf of others, but speaking up/out about injustice, shaking up/off inherited and normalized ways of seeing the world, and creating/making work that helps us envision more equitable relations.

So, as writers, what might we write toward speaking up/out? As researchers, what might we document, interpret, explain, or call out? As educators, what might we teach, contextualize, rethink, or remake with students? And, as artists, what we might create or inspire into being?

I will continue to ask these questions, as I create posts that bring together embodied experience, emotional responses, and self-care (heart); ongoing research and active reflections (head); and attempts at everyday activism, including weekly writing through my blog (hands). If you feel called to do so, I hope you’ll join me.

The Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL) holds space for creating—for sharing activism and art. By expanding what’s possible and enlarging our ideas of teaching and learning, AEPL asks how we’ll respond to the urgent matters of our time. I hope you’ll consider sharing your work here, in the comments or as an author in AEPL’s Blog: A Virtual Gathering Space. For it is now, more than ever, “the time when artists go to work.”

-Beth Godbee, beth.godbee@marquette.edu








Meditating on The Move: Can Cardio Exercise become Part of Contemplative Writing Pedagogy?

Nota bene: At the end of this blog post, I’d appreciate readers “voting,” or chiming in with commentary, on the potential of cardio to be contemplative in nature. Doing so would benefit my dissertation research greatly.

When my Zyn22 spin instructor yells, “This is your time! Time to meditate on the move!” I can’t help but feel a little frustrated.

Maybe I’m frustrated because the next command that often follows usually sounds like this: “Time to dig deep! Time to leave no gas in your tank!”

Or maybe I’m frustrated because the act of meditation is being seen as chasing a euphoric state of sweaty bliss or objectifying the practice in front of gentrified fitness junkies. Maybe the McMindfulness thoughts I expect them to have aren’t fair assumptions though.

Screen Shot 2016

Thinking back to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s widely-accepted definition of meditation, I understand meditation as an “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” My fellow spin students could be meditating as they push up and down on their bike pedals, but if they’re like me then they’re wiping away beads of sweat, taking sips of water every five minutes, or occasionally wondering if Lululemon advertisement on the left is noticing when they miss a beat.

On the other hand, part of me believes that cardio can be contemplative, even meditative, for some practitioners. For me, running is much more contemplative than spinning–less equipment to adjust and more nature around me makes running the easier activity for clearing my mind. I’ve good reason to believe other scholars think running could be contemplative.

Most recently, I interviewed Dr. Pat Okker for my dissertation research project, and I had the privilege of asking this University of Missouri English Professor turned Senior Associate Provost, Marathoner, and Competitive Women’s Powerlifter all about her thoughts on the relationship between writing activity and physical activity. Dr. Okker teaches an honors course that explores running in relation to writing. The running activity supports the writing activity of her students in new and insightful ways.

In another exchange with Dr. Christy Wenger at Shepherd University, I learned that some of her students have suggested that cardio exercise could be contemplative. For these reasons, I can give more credence to what my spin instructor is yelling to me.

Wait, there’s more in other research fields. We’ve seen a surge of research exploring the mental-intellectual benefits of cardio. In psychology, a meta-analysis of research overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that cardio exercise improves memory, creative processing, and decreases stress inevitably experienced by most individuals engaging in the creative process (Tomporowski).

Journalists are another group jumping on the contemplative-cardio cart. Twice now New York Magazine, Melissa Dahl made readers privvy to the stacks of new research on writing,
running, and meditating as mind-clearing activities. Dahl cites examples of prolific writers who united these activities for the sake of their writing processes. As Atlantic
writer Nick Ripatrozone hypothesizes, for Joyce Carol Oates, Louis May Alcott, Jonathan Swift and many other writers, running feels like a “natural extension of writing,” in that the cardiovascular demands of running feel cathartic to “cloistered” writers doing “intensive work.”

It is at this point that my research trail tapers off. The aforementioned examples give composition researchers and pedagogues some ideas about where to take our research in the future if others in the field want to pursue this question. However, we’re still left wondering how compositionists might answer the question: can cardio exercise become part of contemplative writing pedagogy?

I’m wondering what other scholars think. I’m wondering what other researchers know or what research they care to share with our AEPL community. All comments and insights are welcome.

-Jackie Hoermann
E: j.hoermann@tcu.edu

Works Cited

Dahl, Melissa. “How Running and Meditation Change the Brains of the Depressed.”
NY MAG Online (24 March 2016). Web. 24 May 2016.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon.Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming The Present Moment–And Your
Life. Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Incorporated, 2011. Print.

Ripatrazone, Nick. “Why Writers Run.”The Atlantic (11 Nov 2015). Web. 25 May 2016.

Tomporowski, Phillip D. “Effects of Acute Bouts of Exercise on Cognition.”
Acta Psychologica 112.3. (2003): 297-324. Print.


Cultivating Reading’s Possibilities

I was an English major in college. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience taught me to read in a particular way: to approach texts as if each one had a singular, internally consistent meaning I could discover through close attention to details and the relationships between them. Like a good New Critic, I applied this lesson to everything I read, including the poetry I was assigned for my major and the articles on public health and American history that were assigned in other classes. No matter what I was reading, I was reading for the “argument,” a central idea I could bring up in discussion or respond to in my papers and exams. My professors encouraged me to believe my work as a reader was to decipher, interpret, and respond to these arguments. Explication was paramount. As a result of this training, my reading muscles are strong. After four years of full-time teaching, however, I’m starting to wonder about the limits of my argument-seeking approach to reading and how it might be playing out in my classroom. And I’m starting to doubt that I’m the sensitive, all-around reader I imagine myself to be. Perhaps I’m more like an athlete who spends so much time building up his biceps that his leg muscles have started to atrophy.


My purpose in this essay is to explore two styles of reading, the argument-focused approach I describe above and a more open-ended, “transactional” style I’m trying to cultivate. In order to show the styles in action, I will describe a reading experience that frustrated me and three approaches I am experimenting with in the classroom. I would appreciate hearing your stories about reading’s possibilities, as well, so please check-in in the comments section below.


Struggling with Scalapino

After defending my dissertation in October 2015, I turned to a new project: co-chairing a seminar on poetry and poetics at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference. My contribution to the seminar was to be an analysis of New Time, a book-length poem by the experimental American writer Leslie Scalapino. Here’s a section of the poem I planned to discuss:

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.10.37 PM

for Joanne de Phillips, playing Frank Martin’s Irish Trio

As you can see, the poem is difficult. It starts in the middle and shifts unexpectedly from idea to idea. Reading the poem out loud feels like meditating or/and like being challenged to attend to something important that is happening just beyond the possibility of conscious understanding. (You can listen to Scalapino reading a related poem, “bum series,” in a video project created with the artist Konrad Steiner here: https://vimeo.com/36815960.) In the weeks before the conference, I started to worry I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything intelligible to say. I read and reread the poem, dog-earing pages and taking notes, and thought through what other scholars had written about Scalapino and other poets in her circle. When I sat down to write, though, I found myself stuck. I didn’t understand what I was reading. The poem made no sense, or else it made too much sense to explain. I felt confused, defeated, and ashamed.

Charles Bernstein, a poet, critic, and teacher who was a friend of Scalapino’s in the 1980s, has long advocated for an approach to experiencing and interpreting difficult texts that he calls “creative wreading.” The practice involves transforming texts by translating, erasing, and disrupting them through a set of procedures. As Bernstein explains in Attack of the Difficult Poems, the purposes of “wreading” are twofold. First, the practice enables readers to “investigate the recombinant structure[s]” of texts and the degree to which a text “retains its identity through modification of its constituent elements.” Second, it encourages “more intuitive, even visceral, contact” with textual materials. The principle underlying Bernstein’s approach is the idea that “you can’t interpret what you don’t experience.” (Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann demonstrate a similar approach in their article “Deformance and Interpretation.”)

Reading New Time with Bernstein’s “wreading” in mind made me slow down. Rather than trying to organize the poem’s references into some composite meaning or argument, I paused to absorb its many possibilities. For example, I thought about the relationships between the waste collection scene at the beginning of the passage above and the concert scene at the end. Where I had been asking, “what does a performance of Frank Martin’s ‘Irish Trio’ have to do with entrepreneurial garbage pickers?” I wondered, instead, “what if we put cellos out for recycling and played music on empty bottles?” and “what if the ‘destitute men’ were attending a cello performance instead of collecting bottles?”

While I’m not sure these questions are useful, I’m also not sure they are pointless. Whatever their merits, they helped me finish my talk and left me more interested in New Time and in Scalapino’s larger body of work than I had been when I started reading. I concluded my talk with a description of how it felt when I stopped reading for the poem’s argument and started allowing meanings to emerge:

If my reading of New Time is inconclusive, which it is, my experience of reading the poem is less so. Pursuing the poem’s possibilities rather than pressing against its frustrations forces me to take responsibility for the kinds of meanings that ‘register’ in my encounter with the text and to recognize that each meaning I create with the poem is different from the meanings Scalapino experienced and from the meanings other readers experience.


Experimenting in Class

As a result of my struggle with New Time, I have started to experiment with different kinds of reading activities in my first-year writing classes. Modelled on Bernstein’s “creative wreading” approach, the activities encourage students to experience the texts we are reading more fully and to persevere when they feel like they are missing something. Some of the activities have worked well and others have failed. I describe three of them below. My hope in introducing the activities has been that they will help students build confidence in the insights they have as they read. By doing that, I also hope that they will enable students to construct more dynamic understandings of our course materials. More than anything else, I want my students to trust their responses to the texts we read, not because their responses are correct or comprehensive, but because, as Rosenblatt theorizes, their responses are integral parts of the “transaction” that comprises the text’s meaning.


Reading by association: The first activity builds directly on Bernstein’s “creative wreading” strategies (a complete list of Bernstein’s strategies is available here: http://writing.upenn.edu/bernstein/wreading-experiments.html). I ask students to read a section of the text and copy down 5-10 words or two-word phrases that seem important. For each word or phrase, they draw an arrow and add the next word or phrase that comes to mind and then a second arrow and the next word or phrase. Applying this strategy to Scalapino’s poem might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.12.52 PM

The matrix of associations becomes a new text. Some of the associations point back to the poem, for example, “homelessness,” “poverty,” and “escape,” while others point elsewhere, “dew,” “Christmas tree,” and “construction crew.” The point of the activity is to experience all of these possibilities and to recognize which ones seem helpful, which ones seem provocative, which ones seem like dead ends. When the activity works, several things happen: students laugh at the wilder associations, come up with more than two columns of new ideas, and get upset when someone else’s associations take our discussion too far from a meaning they have invested in. The activity fails when I can’t stop myself from pushing for singular arguments or when students aren’t willing to risk coming up with interpretations that float away from the words on the page. As in Bernstein’s “creative wreading,” the associations serve as a beginning point for further discussion, writing, and research.

Reading by believing: The second activity draws on the practical wisdom of Peter Elbow’s “Believing Game.” Elbow describes the “believing” method in an essay appended to Writing Without Teachers. The essence of the method is to entertain multiple possibilities of meaning while reading and to continue to believe as many as possible until one starts to seem like the most likely meaning. He elaborates on how the method works by contrasting it with another method, “doubting,” which he explains as a practice that aims to protect readers from errors by probing for inconsistencies. “Believing” reorients this process of suspicious interpretation. Rather than reading for details and identifying and “doubting” patterns among them, a reader who “believes,” in Elbow’s sense, starts from a sense of the text’s overall meaning—its “gestalt”—and then considers how well that meaning accommodates the text’s many details. When new meanings emerge, the reader adds them a list of possible meanings rather than seeking to disprove them or reconcile them with a previous understanding.

Like Bernstein, Elbow prioritizes the experience of reading over the results of interpretation. “Because words are full of redundancy and ambiguity,” he explains, “you’ve got to hold up in the air countless possible meanings of parts—and even meanings of the whole—and then find the whole that makes the most sense. While “believing” in the meanings that emerge as we read might seem simple, the practice is actually quite challenging. Scroll back to the passage from Scalapino’s New Time above. Believe, for a moment, that the poem really means to tell us about a crisp winter morning in the city. How well do the details of the text align with that interpretation? Still imagining that meaning to be true, believe that the poem shows us the truth about humanity’s relation to the objects it creates. How well do the details of the text align with that interpretation? How has believing both meanings simultaneously changed the way you think about the poem?

To put Elbow’s “believing” method into practice, I ask students to read a text and trust their gut instincts about what it means overall rather than worrying about what they don’t understand. After they write a sentence or two summarizing their sense of the overall meaning or purpose of the text, I ask them to identify one or two details they don’t immediately understand. For a poem, these details might be lines or phrases. For prose, the details might be paragraphs or whole sections of the text. Once they’ve identified the details that still seem hard to understand, I ask them to freewrite using the following template: “Since I know the text means ______________________, the detail about ____________________ must mean ______________________.” I encourage them to write as many different versions of this sentence as they can for each of the confusing details they identified. The purpose of the activity is not for students to come up with correct interpretations of the text or of any one of the details. Instead, what I hope happens is that the activity helps students recognize that some of the meanings they construct are more believable than others. My sense from Elbow is that recognizing the possibility that some meanings are more or less likely than others is a first step toward recognizing that meanings (plural) rather than meaning (singular) are the more attractive outcome of reading.

Reading with pictures: The third activity combines Bernstein’s principles of “creative wreading” with Elbow’s strategy of “believing” and transfers the activity of reading from interpreting texts to creating images. Reading with pictures follows the same general steps as reading by association and reading by believing. Students read a text then respond. Their task in this activity is to draw a picture or diagram that helps them understand some aspect of the text. I generally allow 10 minutes for drawing and then ask for volunteers to show and explain what they’ve drawn. I think the instruction to draw one aspect of the text induces “believing” in two ways. First, drawing takes almost everyone out of their comfort zone, especially since most of us end up drawing on lined notebook paper with whatever pen or pencil we brought to class. Second, focusing on one aspect of the text rather than all of it at once clears our minds of doubts that might creep in if we had to account for everything. To put it another way, my students are much more likely to draw something they understand than something they don’t, and they are much less concerned with how their drawings look—even if I’ve told them I plan to collect them for a grade—than they are with the quality of their written work. I’ve also noticed that writing assignments that start with pictures and then proceed to arguments often focus more closely on specific details than those that start with words alone.

The first time I tried to read Scapalino’s poem with pictures, I drew stick figures kneeling in the snow. I thought of prayer when I saw what I had drawn. The idea of prayer transformed the sound I heard when I reached “Frank Martin’s Irish Trio” from the jig I had been imagining into a church choir. I wondered if the poet had heard the piece at a funeral, or if perhaps one of the “destitute men” had frozen to death. I thought about the relationships between death and recycling and between the routines we follow in disposing of bodies and plastic bottles. While my guess is that most of these ideas would not be useful for explaining the poem, the stick figures I drew gave me a way to organize at least some of what had confused me on a first reading. Similar things happen in class when we work through the activity. It is exciting to listen as students compare what they have drawn and realize that they are developing completely different readings of the same text.


Writing teachers have been asking questions about how their students read for decades. As Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue observe in a recent special issue of Pedagogy, attention to reading spiked in the early 1980s with the emergence of reader response theory, ebbed during the canon wars of the 1990s and the rise of accountability regimes in the 2000s, and is returning to the center of writing studies scholarship today. I share Salvatori and Donahue’s sense of the importance of reading to writing and thinking and agree with them that becoming a better reader is central to becoming a more effective writer. Like many writing teachers, in fact, I have long included a statement on my syllabi to this effect: “Because good writing starts with good reading, attention will also be paid to critical reading strategies.” As I hope you can see from the experiences and activities I describe in this post, believing in a principle—such as the idea that attentive, open-ended reading leads to better writing—and putting that principle into practice are two different things. I’m at the beginning of what I hope will be a longer engagement with questions about reading and how I can best use the reading muscles I have developed in becoming one of Foster’s “professional” readers to enrich the “transactions” my students experience when they encounter difficult texts. More importantly, I hope that the reflective awareness I am developing about my own reading and writing practices will help me discover more of the possibilities of meaning available in and through the next text I choose to read.


Bernstein, Charles. Attack of the Difficult Poems. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2011. Print.

Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. 1973. Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.

Foster, Thomas. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. 1978. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1994. Print.

Salvatori, Mariolina, and Patricia Donahue. “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Guest Editing as a Form of Disciplinary Probing.” Pedagogy 16.1 (2016): 1–8. Print.

Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome J. McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25–56. muse.jhu.edu. Web.

Scalapino, Leslie. New Time. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Print.


Contributor Biography

Nate Mickelson is Assistant Professor of English at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, CUNY. He earned his PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY, and holds an MA from Hunter College, CUNY, and a BA from Yale University. Nate’s research focuses on twentieth and twenty-first century American poetry and poetics and its relationship to social practice. His current book project, City Poems and Urban Crisis, analyzes responses to urban problems from poets, city planners, and critical urban theorists. Nate also writes and presents on reading and writing pedagogy and learning communities. He serves on the board of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning.


Thank you…and let’s keep it up!

As the managing editor of our blog, I want to thank those of you who have submitted posts in the past and have helped to make this space flourish with insight and new ideas we can all apply to our thinking, teaching and writing. I also want to thank the loyal readers and blog followers who come to this space every month to expand your viewpoints and to see what others are saying.


There is no official post this month because I have a very empty 2016 calendar of posters who have indicated they’d like to write for us. I hope the “radio silence” this month will encourage many of you regular readers to email me at cwenger@shepherd.edu and to sign up to write!! Our blog is dependent on YOU!! We’ve really built up some writing steam the past two years, so let’s keep it going!

Remember, guest blogging is a great chance to air an idea, motivate yourself to
reflect on a class/ conference/ professional event, or write your way through a research topic. In turn, you should certainly include the blog as an online publication on your CV,
etc. As editor, I can be as little or as heavily involved as you wish: sometimes all writers need from me is a deadline and final reviewing, other times I help brainstorm topics and provide extensive revision feedback. Ideally, at the turn of each new year, I’d have a month-to-month list of posters all lined up. 🙂


Thanks to you for where we are today–and help me keep this blog going strong through 2016 and beyond!



The “Other” Student: From Disruption to Generosity

From an outside perspective, everything appears normal. Malik, a first-year, African-American student from Brooklyn, is sitting in the front row as usual. Today in our composition class before our workshop begins, I’m presenting a 15-minute lecturette on using signal phrases to introduce sources in a documented essay. As he listens, Malik’s piercing eyes are trained in my direction; he almost imperceptibly nods his head as I speak.

But everything is not what it appears. In the chilly classroom this January morning, Malik has his hoodie pulled over his small afro, hiding much of his face. And though he is pointed squarely in my direction only six feet away, I notice he’s not actually looking at me at all; instead, Malik is looking through me, past me. He doesn’t seem to be here in the room. Then I notice the nodding of his head is oddly rhythmic in nature—more like head-bobbing. It’s then I realize that underneath his hood, Malik is jamming to some Drake or Kendrick Lamar track on his iPhone, microscopic earbuds blasting 85 decibels of sound and turning my carefully constructed presentation into a C-grade pantomime. Don’t get me wrong: I like Malik tremendously, and he’s damn clever—after all, I can’t actually hear that music he’s listening to, and he knows it.

Now what I’m going to say next may seem anathema (or, at least, counterintuitive) to warm, welcoming literacy teachers like us. After all, my doctoral classes in post-secondary composition have taught me a wide array of student-centric, soul-sensitive, teachable-moment approaches to situations like these. And I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice those approaches over the last 20 years. As I’m sure you’ve discovered yourself, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Personally, I’ve always been suspicious of prepackaged, highly marketed pedagogical “solutions” to “enhance student engagement” and “increase retention.” Blech. More typically, I’m attracted to willingly being in problems as much as humanly possible when they arise, purposely swimming through them though I feel like I’m drowning, carefully breathing them in although it burns—some of my colleagues even call me masochistic in this way. But I’ve learned that reactionary responses to solve problems or fix brokenness—in other words, rolling out some pedagogical panacea simply to make my life easier—hasn’t really enriched me or my practice in any way over the last couple decades. In fact, I might say that doing so has actually short-circuited learning and growth in some cases.

So, my anathematic suggestion is that maybe, just maybe, not every classroom issue needs to be immediately solved. Ask yourself this: Although an entire industry has arguably been created to help teachers eradicate problems and remove barriers so we can “get on with the important task of teaching and learning,” what might happen if we decide to loiter in the messiness of our teacherly lives for a while? How might we grow, teachers and students as human beings, if we refused to rush headlong into salving our wounds, however big or small? What could we learn from welcoming the inevitable, painful shortcomings inherent in any complex, dynamic environment like a classroom? Might we even be able to somehow mindfully honor these problems and the suffering they bring—like my heart sinking and my anger rising as I realize, in a flash, that Malik is enjoying his concert-for-one, confident he is slick enough (and that I am gullible enough) to pull it off. What would such a classroom look like?


Oh, there is one thing you should know: Although I talk a good game, ultimately I’m president-elect of the Cowardly Teachers Association of America. Nevertheless, when contemplating this student’s questionable decision to rock out during class, I tried my best to adopt a humble position—to become willing to be in the problem regardless of how much it might hurt my feelings, regardless of how angry or depressed I might get, regardless of how much I just wanted to yell out loud in front of everyone: “Enjoying the music, Malik?”

So instead, I decided to revisit Jerome Miller’s book The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Miller’s book is a meditation on the role suffering plays as a spiritual teacher. The most important concept in Miller’s philosophy, and the one I hope to apply to this classroom situation, is the existence of the Other. Central to Miller’s world view, the Other is a person, force, or circumstance that, wholly separate and different from us, enters our lives to painfully interrupt our routines. The Other exists solely to abandon us to crisis, which, ultimately, might transform the way we live and think (and in this case, teach). The Other is “something foreign and strange, an alien reality intruding upon the settled time and bounded space of everyday life” (14). The Other can appear in the form of a critical tragedy resulting in great personal upheaval, or it may be experienced in the form of a spiritual presence. Likewise, the Other may take the form of a revelation, a sudden and deep understanding, or an entirely different perception that lays our previous worldview to waste. The goal of the Other is to leave us untethered, wandering in a new landscape without a compass. Essentially, the Other is an interloper who rips into our tightly controlled lives and cannot be wrestled to the ground. Also important: The question is not whether the Other will visit you; the Other will befriend every single human being eventually. The real question is: How will you respond when it comes knocking?

If you’ve been following my argument, you won’t be surprised who I’ve cast in the role of the Other. That’s right: Malik. I realize that it may seem disingenuous to characterize one student’s slightly annoying behavior as a perception-warping, life-changing event. And again, branding a student as “Other” justifiably seems anathema to literacy teachers who do everything humanly possible to create positive learning communities that embrace others—not potentially ostracize or reduce them with a label. I understand how pretty awful this might sound. But that is precisely what I’d like you to consider for a moment (not ostracizing students, of course, but viewing them through the powerful lens of Miller’s disruptive Other and how this perspective might positively transform teaching practice). The role of the Other (this week, played by Malik) is singular in purpose: to breach our boundaries, to radically adjust (and maybe even shatter) expectations, to interrupt the safe routines of our lives. And the point of that disruption is to transform us—personally and professionally.



I guess if I were an optimist, I’d end my discussion basking in this “Dead Poet’s Society” moment. Unfortunately, since I am still a card carrying member of the Cowardly Teachers Association of America, you can probably guess my gut reaction when faced with the Other and what it means to me as a teacher. I am fearful of what transformation might come, and I will do whatever I can to avoid, suppress, domesticate, or marginalize the Other and its power. You may not have this kind of reaction when staring into potential radical transformation. But for me? I see this rupture, I see Malik’s behavior, as painful and treacherous, and I willfully question if pondering it really has any worth. Why not just nip it in the bud, publicly ask him to leave, give him a zero on class participation, and enjoy my weekend? Sure, I’ve taken this purely reasonable approach in the past to punish students for texting their friends under the desk (or for disregarding any other classroom policy); maybe you have too. But when I take the time to sit gingerly in the middle of the problem, something very different happens. Strikingly, I hear Miller’s argument: When faced by the disruptive Other, our first instinct is to purposely build powerful routines into our lives that act as barriers against suffering and radical transformation. Anything can become a buffer that protects us from transformation, especially as teachers–the predictable and familiar way we structure our relationships with students, our nearly-legalistic classroom policies as stated on syllabi, the way we carry out our endless cycle of work: “(T)he very process of work itself makes it possible for me to impose a direction, a sequence, and thus a pattern, on my life. It is really the process of work itself which gives me the sense of being in control.  To be ‘liberated’ from work would be to rupture the order which keeps chaos at bay” (11). Needless to say, any safe routine we follow in our teaching practice, or any predetermined pedagogy we use, might apply. Think about it: How many of your highly controlled, repeated, safe classroom practices exist to help you maintain the illusion that you are in control by pre-emptively disarming the Other? I’m not arguing that classroom policies aren’t needed, or that order isn’t necessary for learning to occur. But I am asking us to pay attention to what role these forces may also be playing in stunting our evolution as literacy teachers.

Beyond my teaching routines, there are other ways I avoid suffering that the Other might visit upon me. For example, I regularly “domesticate” the disruptions caused by the Other through sheer will. The easiest way to accomplish this is by labeling the Other as a “problem to be solved” and, as I mentioned earlier, I apply a quick, smartly marketed, painless remedy of some sort. As Miller says, “(W)e live in dread of being upset. At the basis of our ordinary world is an unwillingness to be disrupted. The very fact that we cannot bear to think of losing control shows how determined we are to avert that possibility” (14).  When an Other, such as Malik, makes his or her presence known, “We cope with this by defining the Other as a ‘problem.’ A ‘problem’ is an interruption which, in principle, can be managed, an intruder which can be disarmed. Even if I never find a solution, even if I spend the rest of my life figuring out how to deal with ‘it,’ I have already robbed the ‘it’ of its power to rupture my life by imposing on it the role of a problem” (15).

In this case, once I am able to disarm the Other (by reducing Malik to a mere problem), I can fool myself into thinking that nothing can ever upset me again—the illusion of control is re-established. Conversely, I might simply avoid contact with the Other altogether; for example, I could decide to not welcome Malik into my tightly controlled existence at all. This could be materially accomplished in a few easy ways: For instance, I could tell him to drop the course, or allow him to remain while wholly ignoring him and his behavior the entire semester. If I opt for this approach, Miller says I’ve become the God of my own, constantly shrinking universe: “Insofar as I want everything to be manageable, I want there to be nothing infinite in my life, nothing that surpasses or exceeds my power to cope and handle. If by the divine is meant something radically Other, infinitely beyond my capacity to control, then I will exclude everything divine from my life” (20).

Suffice to say, there are many other, completely understandable approaches teachers might take when faced by the disruptive power of the Other. As I mentioned previously, it’s not if you’ll find the Other sitting in the front row of your class one day, but how you’ll react when you do. (Actually, if you are currently teaching, you’ve likely already established relationships with many Others; all you need to do is critically recollect how you reacted and in what ways this encounter or relationship enriched—or diminished–your practice.) Obviously, the approaches I’ve mentioned here—using routines to avoid the Other, labeling the Other as an easily solvable problem, denying the Other entrance into a carefully controlled existence–would not be labeled as “best practices” by a long shot. And, as someone who is leery of solutions in general, I’m not offering one.

But I’ve found that pondering the Other does present me with an interesting lens to view my practice—a lens that, I think, really wouldn’t exist otherwise. For Miller, avoiding the Other or attempting to make our lives more manageable when confronted by the Other is our worst possible response; we may as well be committing spiritual suicide. Conversely, Miller suggests that welcoming the Other (or the whole student) into our lives allows us to become fully human; welcoming the Other is an opportunity for us to relinquish our attempts at control. As teachers, we like to think we are in complete control; but in reality, we control very little. Usually, it is our tendency to control every aspect of our lives that keeps the Other at bay. However, by letting go of control, by not responding to the Other in reductionist ways, we submit to the reshaping process that the Other visits upon us, and we are transformed. A thoroughly scary proposition? For me, a resounding yes! But Miller says that this visitation of the Other is an opportunity for us to practice generosity. If we are to live and participate fully in the world, especially as people who want to help students grow, we must be willing to welcome the stranger, to welcome the suffering the Other might bring as a disruptive—but evolutionary–force. And just to make this entire prospect more formidable, Miller argues that there is no guarantee this process will be necessarily beneficial; assuming a positive outcome would simply be another way of plying our will-to-control. No, Miller argues that the Other is an “emissary from the wilderness” that brings with it an opportunity for us to experience the “true, freeing uncertainty of our very existence” (15).


I can’t leave Malik’s story unfinished. I apologize, but the ending is quite ordinary, which shouldn’t be surprising really. In the final hour, I didn’t say anything to Malik about listening to music during the lecture. After all, he was only disrupting his own learning, and no one else was being distracted. Seeing my dilemma this way helped me put the matter into perspective; generosity materialized as no action on my part, I guess. Maybe he was having a bad day; maybe he was able to understand the lecture anyway; maybe “showing up” was all he was capable of that day. In short, Malik passed the class, which was his immediate goal. Ultimately, I only know that I have gained much from contemplating his behavior and choices.

Maybe you, too, have gained something from reading about Malik’s presence in my life. Have you had an Other teach you a difficult lesson about your practice? Feel free to let me and other readers know about it below.

Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.

Work Cited

Miller, Jerome A. The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1988.