Intellectual Distancing (written during the pandemic of 2020)

We are social distancing to avoid the spread of something bad. But I also feel that we are intellectual distancing, and doing so is preventing the spread of something good, or rather, of a multitude of good things. 

I’m not talking just about the “distance learning” that teachers around our country have been asked to do, and I’m not just talking about education during this pandemic. Intellectual distancing has been with us for a while – perhaps forever – and it takes different forms in different ages. 

Teaching can, and I believe should, be an interaction between human beings, between  teachers and students. Frederick Buechner has written that “In the last analysis, I have always believed, it is not so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves.” Madeleine L’Engle has written that “If what you say and what you are are the same thing, then you’re going to be a fine teacher.” In The Courage to Teach, Parker J. Palmer writes that “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

Teaching at its best is personal. If teaching is, as two authors I am currently reading (Jeff Wilhelm’s Planning Powerful Instruction and Scot Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare – in which this blog is quoted!), that education is an intellectual apprenticeship, then in order to apprentice our students, we as teachers need to have a relationship with our subject matter that we can model.

My relationship with English as a subject is as specific as one of my finger prints, and it influences my teaching every day that I am in the classroom. Books and writing, comics and creativity are what got me through a difficult childhood, so I value them in a very particular way. 

I bring my knowledge of comic strips and Looney Tunes cartoons with me when I teach. I bring my love of Star Wars, my love of Disney, my love of art. I bring my own experience with many different forms of writing: comics, novels, plays, poems, blogs, newspaper editorials, teacher how-to books. 

I bring my own philosophies into the classrooom. I view writing and life as being all about having big ideas and ideals and creating details that make those big ideas concrete – either through actions on the page or through actions in the real world. I believe that stories can help us rehearse for the future, caution us, advise us, and prompt us to think about life and morality and people differently. 

I believe writing enables us to make sense of the world, to express ourselves, and to make stronger connections between ourselves and others. I believe writing in all its forms can be fun. I also believe writing and words can be dangerous, and should be used carefully. I believe we need to be able to spot when words are being used badly and resist them. I believe that in life, and in writing and reading, having a flexible set of tools at our disposal is nearly always better than following an inflexible set of rules – the exception being things like traffic rules, of course. I believe that language can help us make sense of life, to see the world in a new way. I believe as Faber does in Fahrenheit 451, that the “magic is [in] what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

I bring to the classroom the fact that I am seldom bored and interested in nearly everything. I bring curiosity. I bring a strong appreciation for ambiguity and for certainty when it is needed. I bring something with me from nearly every book I’ve ever read. I bring the wisdom of teachers who have mentored me through their books: Parker J. Palmer, Neil Postman, Nancy Atwell, Robert Coles. 

And each of my students brings themselves to the classroom. I get to know them through their writing. Their enthusiasms and frustrations, their worries and wonders. I get to talk to them each day and see how their lives are going. I see what books they choose to read on their own, and I see how they respond to the things I ask them to read. I get to challenge them and get questioned by them. Sometimes I frustrate them. Sometimes they frustrate me. Sometimes they blow my mind by noticing something new in a book I’ve taught dozens of times. They do something as a writer that I hadn’t taught them. 

Like any human relationship, it has ups and downs. I have had students hate my class when they were in it come back to tell me that it was the best class they ever took. Within a two day span this school year, back when we were actually at school, I had a student tell me she hated my class with a white hot passion and that she couldn’t learn the way I taught, but I was also walking along a balcony when a student called up from the courtyard below that they missed my class every day and that they loved me. 

So when I teach, I am teaching through the relationship, and I am not just teaching a set of standards, I am not just teaching my subject. I am modeling my relationship to my subject. I am modeling how I view my subject, feel about my subject, live my subject. This is what I would call intellectual closeness. It looks different for every teacher, but if you’ve ever experienced it, you know the difference it can make. It made all the difference for me – with more teachers than I could count. 

I create my own assignments. I track down engaging things to read. I create writing exercises and assignments so that my students’ interests and experiences matter. I treat my school year like a piece of writing myself – I organize it and try to create a flow so each concept and idea follows on the next and works on multiple levels. When we are discussing emotional intelligence during Romeo and Juliet, we also discuss tone in writing; the two concepts link to each other. No lesson is about teaching a standard in isolation. Everything is connected, including, I hope, the teacher and the students.

My wife teaches senior English at the same high school I teach at. She brings her own relationship with English to the table: lots of experience on stage interpreting other people’s words; a love of historical fiction, a love of poetry born of teaching, a love of class discussion and ambiguity. Because of her stage experience, she brings a certain… showmanship to her class. When she wanted to introduce absurdism to her students before reading Waiting for Godot, she ran an absurdist class. She wasn’t outside her door to greet her students. She had a sign that told them to wait until she was good and ready for them. She had written all kinds of self-contradictory signs and messages all over the room. She talked in strange voices and asked strange questions. “I was insane, essentially,” she told me. I was not able to witness it, but I heard about it. It was a lesson that only she could have given. 

During this remote teaching time, my wife asked her seniors to read The Glass Menagerie and analyze which of the characters would deal with a quarantine well and not so well, based on the play and on their own experience of our current situation. Analysis doesn’t have to be impersonal. And neither do teaching and learning.

But too often, teaching is intellectually distant – an interaction between entities. A company comes up with a canned curriculum or textbook or computer program or online platform that purports to raise test scores. The teacher presents the canned curriculum, the strategies and ideas of the company pass through the generic teacher and into the generic students, and supposedly test scores go up. Teaching is no longer about human relationship and human flourishing. It is no longer about intellectual closeness. It is about students and teachers using a product (the program) together in order to perform better in their use of another product (the Test). 

Everything about the program and the test must be as generic as possible. Rewrite the standards so that we no longer care about how students interact with a text: they just analyze it and mine it for textual evidence. Keep it intellectually distant. If we want to make tested writing easier for an algorithm to score, don’t let students write about things that are personal. Give them texts to write about and have them synthesize those texts. No original ideas to worry about, and no original details either. 

The result of all this generic work, these intellectually distant tasks that have no connection to either the teacher or the student, is that cheating and plagiarism have never been easier. 

Way back in the mid-90s I travelled with some other teachers from my district to another district where they had started using an early version of online learning. We watched students click away at their screens, answering questions. The principal was very proud of what they were achieving, but as we left, one of the reading teachers in our group looked at us and quietly and vehemently said, “That’s just a digital workbook. It’s not teaching.” 

So now I am monitoring my “regular” ninth graders as they click their way through a digital workbook. I will get to look at the generic essay they are writing, but mostly the work grades itself via the platform’s algorithm. I email them. I prod them and prompt them and try to encourage them. But what I am not doing is teaching. Fortunately, with my Pre-IB students I am still using my material. I am having online discussions. I am still able to bring myself to the table and encourage them to come to the table, even if the table is virtual. 

Intellectual distancing, alienating teachers from their own teaching and students from their own learning, is dehumanizing. It is a waste of human possibility. Ironically, we are calling this process –  of taking mass produced educational products, sending them through teachers to students, so that students will perform better on mass produced tests – personalized learning. 

Some will claim that truly making education about relationships, about what individual teachers and students have to bring to the classroom, will result in a chaos of different styles of teaching, even different and contradictory information being taught. Yes, we need to make sure that science teachers aren’t teaching that the Earth is flat, that math teachers aren’t teaching students that irrational numbers don’t exist, that English teachers aren’t teaching students that the only way to write an essay is to write five paragraphs… Oh, wait. That last one is happening now, and is often being passed down by the companies that produce our intellectually distant learning products. 

There are risks to connected to truly interactive teaching. But in my view there are even greater risks in outsourcing our education to companies whose main purpose is profit. There are even greater risks in reducing all learning and thought to the logic of algorithms. Intellectually distant teaching produces learners who are alienated from their own learning, who view schooling as doing a series of activities to get a grade.

Real education is more than downloading facts. It is more than learning skills or achieving standards. It is, or should be, a profoundly human endeavor.

We need to practice social distancing for now, but during this crisis and afterward, we should practice intellectual closeness – a relationship between real humans and the subjects they are sharing with each other.