you better recognize

The knee is letting me run again, so I’ve been out around the campus and Boone a few mornings this month. Running outside and running on a treadmill shouldn’t even use the same verb. To run is to be in the world, but not of it, a twenty-first century flaneur granted permission to see everything while remaining mostly invisible. What a pleasure.

Except that when you’re a professor on the campus you’re running around, you’re not invisible, of course. One of my students from two years ago spotted me in my fourth mile trance last week. When I waved, she startled, then waved back, saying, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you!” My endorphin-rattled brain produced a very odd reply:

“That’s OK: I don’t even recognize myself.”

What could I possibly have meant by that?

I think I probably was trying to laugh off that weird frisson that students experience when they see a teacher in an un-teacherly place (remember bumping into yours in the grocery store, at the movies? A universally weird and memorable sensation).  I was probably also mitigating a little of the self-consciousness I felt, sensing the distance between the floppy, sweaty profile I cut de pie and the more-or-less tucked in persona I inhabit professionally.

But today, the first day of classes, I am thinking about just how aptly my malaprop describes what we are up to here in undergrad education, on our best days: providing opportunities for students not to recognize themselves.

I am playing with “recognize” here of course, thinking about it as “re-cognizing:” actually engaging with a perception anew, “cogitating” upon what you’re perceiving until you know what to do with it next. The brilliant Elliot Eisner taught me (after Rudolf Arnheim, I think) that the arts help us understand education because we look at art to really “re-cognize” what’s there, rather than just recognize it as harmful/benign/useful/not-useful and file it away accordingly. I love how the word reveals that every time we regard something, we have a chance to re-engage it, re-see it, re-experience it as part of our world.

But the experience I hope my undergrads can get in my class is an even deeper disorientation – one that tilts the table and actually invites a completely new way to see. Call it not-re-cognizing, but getting lost, if only for a few minutes. I’ll be experimenting this semester with different ways to invite that productive estrangement, especially on the topic of teacher burnout and how to engage the role in sustainable ways. As always, the opportunities that literature provide to inhabit another world and thereby gain new perspective on your own will be front-and-center. I am especially psyched to teach Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears for the first time, as well as some other tried-and-true short stories about teaching.

This notion of pedagogy is conceptual, but also deeply autobiographical, since the moments of my undergrad career that most affected me were usually the most disorienting ones. I’ve had some splendid professors – people who really knew how to get a guy lost, who I’ll re-cognize here:

  • Dean Edgar Beckham, who introduced me to Achilles and Agamemnon and helped me see how profoundly selfishness and duty could canker each other’s best intentions (I didn’t meet Odysseus until I taught him to ninth graders – I prefer him, for the long haul, to either of those spoiled children);
  • Professor Enda Duffy, who read Discipline and Punish with us and helped us see what something called “postmodernism” was through a newly-published Fred Jameson book. He thoroughly blew both my mind and my confidence that anything I was learning was in fact completely “right” (he also introduced me to the pomo tic of hyphenating otherwise benign words to smartypants effect – sorry, Prof. Duffy);
  • Professor Bernardo Gonzalez, who helped me see the world through the eyes of Spain’s greatest poet and martyr and introduced me to the surreal, dark, and deep parts of my own.

And that was just undergrad. Each course shorted me out in ways that permanently altered my cognizing of everything that came after. My greatest teacher, though, may have been the exquisite film series where I spent a hundred hours getting bent by Blue Velvet and River’s EdgeMy Life as a Dog and Delicatessen, Top Hat and Adam’s Rib (not all disorientation is unpleasant), and of course that capstone achievement of Western civilization, Raising ArizonaThose were the experiences we took back to the dorms and argued about for the rest of the night: the moments of being lost in the dark before alien worlds that someone had dared make real for us.

The opportunity to not recognize oneself, to come back from a book or a discussion or a movie permanently changed. That’s probably my highest aspiration for my classes this year. because if my students have that capacity, they’ll be that much closer to the ability to see the classroom world they create through eyes other than their own; that much more likely to empathize with other’s needs and adapt to meet them; that much more likely to succeed at the daily balancing act of being who they really are in their vocations while also being who others need them to be.

What brings us deeper nostalgia than the first day of school? We have all experienced dozens of them, on one end of a held hand or the other. My campus today is so much like the one I left twenty years ago. The poster sale in the Student Union does brisk business (Bob Marley and Joe Strummer remain in full effect), new clothes and backpacks sparkle on some and not others (socioeconomic difference being, perhaps, the most immediate diversity most of my students grok – and the one my class begins with).  Some of the styles are even coming around again, for better or worse (Frankie Says Neon: Hide Yourself). It’s school: deeply familiar, but with the constant possibility of finding something new, of the familiar becoming strange, of not recognizing yourself.

I wish my students and colleagues a wonderful, strange year. See you ’round the campus.

Thanks to Ken Davenport’s blog for image.

2 responses to “you better recognize”

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