Personal Vanishing Point

I apologize for my last entry, in which I sat down to write a blog entry on the impetus that I hadn’t written a blog entry in a while, instead of the impetus of having something to say.

I have something to say, this time!

I’m about to finish the book Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, which is a fantastic memoir based around her discovering she had cancer in the jaw at 10 years old, and the subsequent experience with operations, chemo, and radiation.  (Side note here, one day I want to teach a class entirely around the illness memoir.  This book, Reynolds Price’s A Whole New Life, and William Loizeaux’s Anna are just so, so good.  Also, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story might be one of my favorite books ever, if you wanted to go that route.)  One of the big parts of this book is her beginning to identify herself as her illness, as her ugliness, as her disfigurement.

“This singularity of meaning–I was my face, I was ugliness–though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape.  It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life.  Everything led to it, everything receded from it–my face as personal vanishing point.”

One of the things that makes a memoir remarkable is the ability to take the foreign experience and distill it into a universal.  In this case, the foreign is having this cancer, specifically at such a young age.  The universal is that most, if not all, of us have had something in our life that has become our own “personal vanishing point.”  That could be something as mundane as acne, as reflective as children, or as capitalist as our jobs.  Some small aspect of our identity, of who we are as people that actually becomes our entire idea of self.

For me, in middle and high school, my identity felt dangerously intertwined with being “the smart kid”.  A lot of times I felt like that was the only thing people associated with “Graham”.  I pushed back against this, sometimes in self-destructive ways, but ultimately one of the best things for the problem was summer camp.  At the time, I wrote (paraphrasing) that gifted summer programming gave me an environment where everyone was “the smart kid” so I could be known for something more.  (Quick note, as I mentioned last entry, NSGT has some scholarships available for summer camp.  I went to ones through the Center for Gifted Studies out of WKU, but you can find similar programs across the country.  Duke TIP is probably one of the best places to look for info.)

A dozen years and a lot of life experience later, I no longer have that same level of identification.  Sometimes there’s still echoes of it though, and yesterday in class was one of those days.  We were discussing what should be taught in college freshman composition classrooms, and we were being critical of the current practice of basing performance metrics entirely on the academic, majority culture discourse.  Basically, we define success in the classroom largely based on standards made by old white men.  I agree, this is a bad thing, but I think we have to be very careful about how we go about solving this problem.  As an example, another student in the class responded to the proposal of having an optional, concurrent remedial course by saying that if a large group of students need a review of the topic sentence, it should be just be taught during the normal classroom.

I got emotional at this, and I tried to respond, but I did a bad job because I wasn’t able to articulate the thoughts that this idea raises in me.  What this idea suggests, to me, is the basic philosophy that can be used to justify policies like NCLB.  The idea that because we don’t want to do tracking, because all tracking is inherently bad, we should therefore teach everything to everyone.  In a perfect world, this makes sense, because in a perfect world the instructor works on the individual level, and the overall coursework is not as important as the growth of each student.  As we all know, though, no teacher has the time to realistically do that, so by shifting the content downward, we are simply excluding a different group of students.  (Two side notes:  This is essentially why I dropped out of high school, and raising expectations typically leads to improved results.)

Now, the typical rebuttal to this idea is to again question the standards we are attempting to “raise the bar” on, and whose standards and values those reflect.  And I agree, we do need to question those values and standards.  But in the process of questioning them, we need to keep in mind this question:  What do we seek to accomplish by teaching a class?  By the educational process?  Unless you want to work off the assumption that it’s realistic to envision a world without grades, and therefore without some sort of graduation process, then I’m going to assume that we, as educators, seek to accomplish eliciting growth and effort within and from our students.  If that’s the case, we need to keep that in relation to how we are going to measure that growth, that effort.  By necessity, that’s going to require some kind of goals, standards, objectives, whatever you want to call them.  Now, universal standards are not the right answer–most people can agree with that.  But in the process of you, personally, figuring out what those standards should be–whether it be for your classroom, your children, or whatever–beware of rejecting the current model without having a well thought-out one to replace it.

For your external content, I highly recommend checking out this Youtube video which does a great job visualizing some math concepts in a way that makes them insanely interesting, even for little old English major me.  If you check out the creator’s channel, there’s a lot more in the same vein.

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