Poignance as a critical skill

(By the way, I firmly believe we need to include “poignance” as an essential analytical and expressive skill, particularly for scholars.)

So I wrote, nearly a year ago. One commenter wanted me to elaborate on that aside. What did I mean? Here’s a little more context:

And so back to education. Are our students not universes within a universe? Are our faculty and staff not likewise? Are we not a university? If so, why all the talk of management? Why not more talk of exploration, of representation, of communal mental activity, of the exciting and taxing co-labors of symbol-making and symbol-sharing? That’s the test of life, as Michael Wesch has poignantly observed. (By the way, I firmly believe we need to include “poignance” as an essential analytical and expressive skill, particularly for scholars.)

The Oxford English Dictionary offers many definitions for “poignant” over the years, with an etymology tracing the word back to an Anglo-Norman word meaning “sharp, pointed, prickly, biting, stinging, jagged.” The meanings take some interesting turns, sometimes to the point of making “poignant” one of Freud’s primal words–a word that contains opposite meanings, like “cleave.”

But the meaning I had in mind when I wrote that passage a year ago was closest to the OED‘s last senses in definition 2a: “tenderly sorrowful, bitter-sweet.” Something like what I think my father must have meant when he said some words could go “clear through” him. Or perhaps it’s the feeling Dr. Ralph Stanley has when he hears some old mountain music and feels deeply touched, moved to his soul.

In the context of education, especially as one gains more sophisticated skills of analysis and expression, it seems to me vitally important that we maintain a sense of humility and shared tenderness in the midst of our uncertain journeys through the strange days we experience together. Working in academia for the last quarter-century, I’ve seen the ugliness and winced at the clanging cymbals of intellectual triumphalism. No doubt there have been times when I’ve contributed to the ugliness myself. It’s a great temptation, once one has a store of knowledge and a set of sophisticated argumentative strategies, to try to be the one to stop the conversation, instead of being the one to further it. We learn it in graduate school, or perhaps earlier, first as a survival skill, then as a set of career moves, and finally as a shield. And what do our students see? That learning is largely a matter of being overruled, of memorizing the lesson that beginners don’t know enough to ask intelligent questions (when in fact some of the best questions come from beginners). And that teaching is an exercise in providing answers and furnishing conclusions, not in guiding inquiries or (heaven forfend)  asking real questions.

Yet the subject always becomes more interesting in the context of leading a committed learner through what Bruner calls the “conjectures and dilemmas” that shape our own ongoing inquiries.

No, one doesn’t get the triumphalism or the sounding gong of ideological precision. One doesn’t get to play “first rank, second rank.” If that’s what one wants, that’s disappointing, of course.

But there are other things to want, especially in the context of the tender sorrow of our brief lives and maddening partings, those things we may enjoy and those things we must endure.

What will be on the test? Brevity, uncertainty, absence. Not only these, of course–but here Robert Frost, as so often, had it right: one of the most poignant questions we must frame in all but words is “what to make of a diminished thing.” That’s where the poignance lies, out of which we may learn, perhaps, love.

Not victory, scolding, surveillance, management, or proctoring.

Just love.

6 thoughts on “Poignance as a critical skill

  1. So often you take the fragments of thoughts in my head and make sense of them for me.
    Knowing that we all travel is a humble reminder that others have traveled before me and still more will travel this way after me and no one is better or worse for arriving sooner or later. As the idea of competition and one-upmanship fades I am left to answer, “what to make of a diminished thing?”…”what are years?”.
    There is still more to say but, there is even more to think and work through.
    Much love,

  2. Plants seem, to me, to be poignant
    New green shoots, buds, seeds as well as dropping leaves and rough skinned branches.
    I can see why trees are used as a metaphor for families.
    It feels like you are looking for a different kind of ‘rightness’, perhaps one which allows room for partners and reciprocity.
    If you asked for assessments without words do you think you might find more of the quality of image or sound that allows for further response?

  3. Gardner

    After all these years of teaching, last semester I taught my first writing intensive course, a seminar for honors students. Sometimes I scolded – once in a while the class as a whole but mostly individual students in what they produced. They could do better. Eventually most did. But they had to overcome their fear and instinct to please me and instead please themselves with their work. When I was scolding I didn’t know how much better they could be. I simply wasn’t happy with where they were.

    Doing this via blogging had some advantages – the entire class could see my comments to each students writing and get a sense of what I liked and what I didn’t.

    There were poignant exchanges, some contentious ones too.

    Perhaps if students didn’t have to unlearn their approach that they’ve developed for their other courses it would have been possible to approach the ideal you articulate. But I’m not sure. I think they need to fail with some of their efforts and I too need to fail with some of things I try with the teaching. In retrospect there might be poignance to the endeavor, but while its happening it is more like panic.

  4. Gardner,
    You are such a poetic writer:
    “But there are other things to want, especially in the context of the tender sorrow of our brief lives and maddening partings, those things we may enjoy and those things we must endure.”
    I am enduring the “maddening parting” of my son headed back to the northeast today, happy for how much he will experience and learn, but so sad for the long talks I will miss until he is home again for summer–or maybe longer than that as the world calls out to him. It is only now as I am reaching “a certain age” that I see how much more important it is to endure, with joy when possible, than to win any smartness trophies.

  5. @Shannon You helped inspire this post, so right back atcha. When will we meet again?

    @Janet I often wonder if words could be augmented in just the way you suggest. I gravitate to symbols, and to modes other than the indicative, when I want full reciprocity and partnership. Yet I don’t want to leave the indicative behind–perhaps merely to contextualize it within a larger and more suggestive symbolic framework.

    @Lanny I hear you, really I do. And I’m very moved by your account, especially the part in which you have to scold your students for not trying hard enough to please themselves within the overall framework you’d supplied. I know what you mean. I’ve been there. And I too wonder whether true partnership and reciprocity would be available in school if all these roles and procedures and mechanics hadn’t hardened around us. Blogging and openness have been powerful agents of wonder in my practice over the last five years. Extremely powerful. I wonder how much farther down that path we might go. Maybe we’ll find out. I probably should have used a more precise word than “scold.” I don’t mean that we should never speak harshly to students who need to know they’re not performing up to their potential. I’m not in favor of coddling, by any means. I had in mind more the scolding of the pedant, the one who learnedly itemizes whole lists of mistakes while missing the spark of learning even as it sputters out. I know that’s not how your scolding went, because I know you don’t view a Ph.D. or a professorship as a pedant’s license.

    I need to write an essay on the autodidact, the object of scorn for many of the credentialed sort who misunderstand the possibilities of teacher, student, and real school.

    @Terry Thanks–that’s about the highest compliment you could pay me. And now for a true confession: my post was inspired to no small extent by the maddening parting I experience yesterday as our son headed back to his school in the northeast. As for poetry, well, you’ve named my very ache when you write of how you miss him, and of your mingled joy and sadness at this most recent parting.

  6. Gardner,

    I happened upon your blog while looking for pictures of cattle that I could apply to project I’m working on. I believe that your posts regarding the education process and the need to approach education from a different philosophical (yet practical) angle can also be adapted to the corporate environment as well.

    Organizations who wish to grow and evolve beyond their current state must look to do away with as many unnecessary levels of management as possible. The growth of an organization comes from that entity’s ability to foster an environment of respect, communication and knowledge sharing. Far too often you have those who scold and want to be those who end/stop the conversation. These knowledge holders attempt to remain in power while not allowing those around them to grow and develop. I’m sure we can all think of examples from past experienced. Might you have any insights on the corporate world?

    I am neither scholarly nor sophisticatedly learned, but I’d have to say that your laments on the current status of our collegiate institutions are far too often institutions of regurgitation and not centers for higher level thinking. If only we could have been encouraged to think about what we learned and argue our positions instead of stating what the professor wanted to hear. For that matter, I feel that the process might need to be redesigned starting with secondary education and progressing throughout one’s latter stages of learning.

    I have enjoyed your posts. I look forward to spending more time on your blog.
    Have a wonderful week!

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