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THE ECOLOGY OF TEACHING

Reflecting with Students

By HECTOR VILA

Hector J. Vila is an Assistant Professor in Writing at Middlebury College in Vermont. He has been teaching writing in urban and rural environments since 1985. Hector is the author of Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom. Throughout his career he has always worked, in one way or another, with K-12 partners. Hector is a regular essayist for Community Works Journal, taking a deeper look at current events, ideas, and trends. He feels that it is clear that we–Americans–are being challenged to examine ourselves, re-assess our principles, values, and ideals; to challenge our pre-conceived notions of ourselves; to then perhaps move towards a fresher perspective.


I must acknowledge a distinct pleasure in my life: walking with students across Middlebury's bucolic campus. Here I am, thinning white hair, not moving as spiritedly as the 18 year olds beside me, two or three students to the left of me, the same to the right, and sometimes one a bit in front of the flock, turning to say something. We part a sea of students in motion—bikes maneuver around us, others with cell phones in hand abruptly realize we're a single mass and weave and bob by, there's laughter, students call out to each other. Hey. Hey back. Polite nods at one another as we pass. A predictable stream switching classes.

No doubt: I am nestled in extraordinary privilege. I have to acknowledge this here and now before we go on. No doubt: Even within the academy I'm privileged. As humanists before us have done, we get to walk around, move from building to building, while scientists are in labs, engineers in theirs, teaching students in nearby classrooms, always in the same building, always the call of technology. I purposely select classroom locations far from my office. This is what the academy looks like today. It allows for different voices in different spaces.

These walks that transfer students from a historical view of this or that to a sociological view to an economist's, a scientist's, are transitions, and moorings—no other word fits the feeling I get. It's amazing what can be experienced in these passages where so much happens in the half-step. I've come to think that our great imagination of the in-between, William Carlos Williams, is right: so much depends/upon/a wheel/barrow.... Go ahead, you know the rest: glazed with rain/water/beside the white chickens.It does, doesn't it - so much indeed depends?

"Are Hunter boots important?" she asks in an English enriched by the elegant vowels we find in Spanish.

"What do you mean?" I reply, sitting with her word, important—letting it push me around. Of great significance or consequence; mattering much; entitled to more than ordinary consideration. She didn't mean style. Esta chica tiene un montón de estilo, I say to myself. From the way she wears her long black hair just off to one side and over her shoulders, to her earthy colored sweaters and coats and jeans and brown ankle high leather boots, to the way she walks, upright, with conviction, almost a march—she has plenty of style. She meant important—more than ordinary. This wasn't a style question. She was looking for something richer, deeper—a more nuanced understanding of American materialism and its place in college life—the life she's now come to.

What is the reality presenting itself to me? she's asking, wide-eyed, raising her eyebrows with every question. Or is this a "shattering transformation of reality itself?" as Slavoj Žižek asks in Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept.

But before we get to these questions, something else, perhaps something more telling about this type of education, where students are afforded strolls across beatified campuses with their professors: what is the student's understanding of the moment in which she finds herself, walking side-by-side with classmates, and her professor, who she just had in a 75 minute class where we discussed Julia Alvarez's ¡Yo!, Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names, race, class and immigration?

It's late November and a gray-blue steel only the pines can penetrate has come over us. The air is dry. The trees have lost their luster, the last vague gold dissolving about a week ago. We've come through a few days facing an Arctic blast—not a great deal of fun for students from the south and tropical climates.

"My lips are so chapped," she says as if making a new discovery, going a different route. "This is terrible. It's the air." But it's impossible to let go of what stirs: "Look, there's a girl with another pair. These are purple."

"And over there," says one of our companions from Asia. "And there. Oh. Everywhere. They must be important. Everyone's wearing them."

"It's some sort of fashion statement," I say, unsure. "A lot of young women have these types of boots."

"Then they can't be that important if everyone has them," says the Spanish student. "Isn't that true, Professor? If everyone has Hunter boots, how can they be important?" She giggles and grins.

She approaches the subject wondering about the importance of Hunter boots because she took our classroom conversation about adaptation into the world and felt she could explore it safely, test it—and me. She's exploring trust. The classroom doesn't work if you can't see it in the world, place it in the palms of a community. If you can't see it, you can't trust it—not completely. Her classroom needs to live; it has to be real, something offering transcendence—as it is for so many others, all the kids that walk with me.

"Tell me, professor," says the Asian student, "What's so unique about boots - they are just rubber? Just useful, you know? Is Hunter an important company?"

In American culture every instance of our lives has to be eventful—this means making fashion statements about where we might belong. Hunter boot-wearing women suggest how they perceive and relate to reality. In this case, Hunter boots align the wearer to a specific style that, in turn, finds a Truth that, it's thought, will shatter the evental reality of others. They are not who they really are, they are something else—the projection of themselves that will convince viewers that they are a Hunter-boot clad event onto themselves. Taken together, they become something else. Is Hunter an important company now? Hyperindividualism is the construction of a conceit; it works two ways: it benefits the individual, so we believe, and the producer of the brand.

What's happening? we ask.

Well, Me, is the right answer.

Me is not a someone, it's a something. We've metamorphosed into things. We want to be identified with things - maybe as things. Things-producers have gilded perceptions into a grand illusion and won—for now. It's a struggle for power—and signification—and my students - all international—are wondering how this works, how this thing with fashion draws attention, and desire, and repels simultaneously? How it creates boundaries, borders that are difficult to cross—apparently a systematic way to alienate unconsciously absorbed?

The awesome power of American material culture, in a small campus like ours, is an incredible burden for (some? all?) students. Hunter boots are a line in the sand—and a tremendous irony: the liberal arts are buttressed by grand displays of wealth; family names on buildings coincide with labels on clothes. We are divided.

The lesson for these international, first year students is that, today, in developed countries—all of us interconnected in so many ways—events define the level of importance we give each moment, and each other. If you can orchestrate an event that gives you relative importance - facebook, twitter, just walking fashionably dressed across a campus, and so on—then you are, in the moment, in this or that in-between where a gaze is but a flash, significant, alive. And the trick, as Slavoj Žižek argues, is to present the event as "not something that occurs within the world, but is a change of the very frame through which we perceive the world and engage in it" (italics in original: Event...).

That is to say, the Hunter boots fashion statement compels my Spanish student to see the world through a frame we can call importance; and that this perceived manner of mattering much already brings forth an understanding that a certain class will define Truth—and that there is a vast distance between them and us though we sit in the same dining halls, the same classrooms, study the same things. The Truth is: in the end, some are in and some are out. Hunter boots are not justboots; they signify an allegiance—as well as desire, as well as a recognition that only some, in a world fighting for a smaller piece of the pie, will get through the tiny keyhole.

But life is not there, the students walking beside me are saying. They mistrust the frame. Importance is an illusion here and displayed as an obstacle, a threat even. Some of my international students want to experience a different Truth. They're more apt to turn to William Blake: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Indeed - what immortal hand or eye can in fact frame this - all of it, fearful or not?

In trying to penetrate this cosmic question, certain students have come to realize that nothing is happening where the framing devise begins with a degree of self-importance; there are only dead ends here. It's about understanding what's behind the devise; what's holding it up matters most, students realize. This understanding leads to re-invention; it comes about organically by discarding certain things of the dominant culture, accepting and using others. This is socio-cultural change on a mass scale - and it's happening now.

The fear of the foreigner resides in this knowledge: some among us—especially those that come into this country for Education and to find work—are becoming hybrids, they are hybridizing, transforming into new beings that are interconnecting with each other, building other, newer, fresher, more pliable alternatives that frame diversity and privilege questions that challenge an authority that gives importance to some things, not others.

This morning we faced howling winds and hard rain. The winds sprinted through the dull maples in the hill just above the back pond on my small farm and roared through the pines. The weather-vane, a golden ewe that sits atop the barn, signaled South. Everything changed overnight. The air became a strong balminess mixed with a chill swirling about trying to get in. The tropical heaviness that comes with a hint of water and a biting but patient Arctic presence pushed each other around all day and into the night.

And what shoulder, & what art,/Could twist the sinews of thy heart? Is it swirling, circling, always around like the wind? Is it always inside each of us and we fear testing this energy in a community that's placed value on surface things instead?

During luxurious walks across campus, I learn of students that want to try to understand these questions because they're searching for alternatives, dead certain that who we are and how we do things can't be sustained. Too much suffering. That's hope. I find it in my walks with students.


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