Building an Internal Library

This post was originally published today on Dana Hall School’s blog, The Roar.

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, for marching for civil rights without a permit; he remained in jail for 11 days, during which he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” That is, 56 years ago this very week, King was in jail and writing the Letter that continues to inspire thousands of people.

My students and I read King’s Letter fairly early in the year whenever I teach AP English Language and Composition, both because it is brilliant in its own right and because it lays the groundwork for my pedagogy of asking students to begin building what I call “an internal library.”

One of the many things that astonishes me about King’s Letter is that he wrote it under such adverse circumstances. An ally smuggled into his jail cell the newspaper that contained a statement by eight white Alabama clergymen denouncing King’s activities, and he immediately began writing a response. As he later explained, “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”

And yet, sitting there in his jail cell, writing on scraps of paper and with nary a book in sight, King draws powerfully on 2,000 years of resources. He discusses ancient and modern history as well as current events. He quotes from the bible, from legal statements, from Abraham Lincoln and from Martin Luther. And he can do all of this because he essentially carries those writings within himself. In my imagination, I see him going into his own mind and browsing the bookshelves of the extensive library that resides there.

An internal library helped King write an extraordinary manifesto of civil rights, and that Letter has in turn become part of my own internal library. I turn to it often when I’m trying to work through the right and wrong of a situation … and by “turn to it,” I mean that I call up the relevant passages in my mind. Yes, I could easily look it up on the internet, but I know it well and can simply flip to the passages I want in my own mind. My internal library comes nowhere close to rivaling King’s, but in just this past week, I have pulled King, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson off the bookshelves of my mind so that I can consult and quote from them.

And so I have my students begin to build their own internal libraries. My AP English Language and Composition students select and memorize five lines from King’s Letter that they can imagine wanting to consult in the future. My US History students this winter memorized and recited Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” so that “of the people, by the people, for the people” now lives within them. I asked my seniors this month to choose five books from their high school reading that they want to be able to carry around with them mentally. And later this spring, my ninth graders will memorize the speech of their choice from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and I will tell them the story of a wonderful spring day several years ago, when my class was performing the final act from the play for some visiting grandparents. As one student began speaking Macbeth’s “out, out, brief candle!” speech, a grandmother began delightedly reciting it with her, having learned it in her own high school days. There could have been no better lesson in the joy that comes from a well-built and well-maintained internal library.

What’s on your own library shelves?

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Separating the performance from the mitzvah

I chanted Torah at Shabbat service this past Saturday … and let’s just acknowledge that I didn’t do so particularly well.

I’ve only been Jewish for three years, and I did not grow up hearing these melodies or studying Hebrew, so I find it all quite a challenge. I’ve now chanted Torah five times (including at my adult Bat Mitzvah), and only one of those could be counted a success. I have shed many tears along the way, including slipping out of the sanctuary to go cry in the bathroom after the total debacle of my second time leyning. After that low point, a Jewish friend reminded me that leyning was a mitzvah entirely aside from how well I pronounced words or hit the right notes, and ever since then I’ve been trying to separate the performance from the mitzvah.

This of course is not a universally held belief; as explained by Joshua R. Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud includes the following admonition: “Rabbi Shefatiah further said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: If one reads Scripture without a melody or learns the Mishnah without a tune, of him the Scripture says (Ezekiel 20:25), ‘Do they think I gave them laws that were not good?’” (318). There is always an expert reader standing nearby with a Torah in codex form (which I’ve just this minute learned is called a chumash as opposed to the Torah sefer, which is the scroll), and I had always assumed that this person was there to help along the non-expert chanter. But apparently in some temples that person is there to correct any mispronunciations, and a friend said to me last week that she thinks of that person as standing by in judgment. This had never occurred to me and fortunately is not the spirit in my synagogue. Before my shaky leyning on Saturday morning, I said to the rabbi, “I’ve been working really hard, but I’m probably going to need help in some rough spots,” and she immediately replied, “I’m there for you, babe” … which indeed she was!

Okay, back to the point I was making, which is that my friend reminded me that chanting Torah in a worship service is a mitzvah in a way that is entirely separate from the quality of my chanting, and her comment inspired me to work toward separating the performance from the mitzvah. The former is so much about my ego and how I hope to be perceived by others. But my shaky chanting is not meant as disrespect for G-d; it is rather about my ongoing learning. Every time I’ve chanted, I’ve learned something new; for example, this past time was my first time using my new “Torah reader’s compendium” that includes pointed Hebrew (with vowels) and Torah Hebrew (with no vowels and all sorts of crowns and decorations that are really hard for a newbie reader!), and by the end of my studying, I could find my place relatively easy in the Hebrew, which was a huge advance for me. So is G-d honored more by my struggling to learn to chant Torah in Hebrew or by my refusing to chant because I won’t do it that well? I’d argue for the former.

After Shabbat service, I went home and took a nap — chanting Torah is exhausting! — and then I went off to school that evening for the annual freshman talent show. I really don’t care for talent shows as a rule; I am given to second-hand embarrassment from poor performances, which are inevitable in any talent show. So this is not my favorite student event of the year, to say the least. But the day before, a colleague had commented at lunch, “You know, it’s great to work at a school that encourages 9th-graders to take a risk on stage in front of a packed audience.” Hmm, food for thought.

So as I was sitting in the audience, watching some great acts and some not so great, I was thinking about my own assertion from that very morning that the quality of the performance is not equal to the value of the performance. This freshman event is important because it gives students the opportunity to work together to create something larger than any one of them; it creates esprit de corps in the class and gives many students a new confidence. So maybe how well any one kid sang or danced is really not so important.

When I used to teach at a Roman Catholic college, the freshman seminar professors were required to teach Dorothy Sayers’s 1942 essay “Why Work?” One of her arguments is that only good craftsmanship can honor G-d: “No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. … No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie. … [The church has forgotten] that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.” Students always got really mad about this statement and almost universally disagreed with Sayers.

As do I … and yet, I do believe that good work is worth doing well. There’s a Jewish principle of hiddur mitzvah — enhancing a mitzvah through attention to aesthetics. On the one hand, I find that lovely; on the other hand, the Protestantism of my youth means that I get uncomfortable with too much liturgical ornamentation. (I vividly remember the first Episcopal church service I attended; when the priest processed into the congregation holding up a gold-bound bible, and everyone turned toward said bible, I got very agitated about bibliolatry! You can imagine that the silver Torah crowns cause me some uneasiness every week.)

All of which is to say that I’m of two — or three, or four — minds about my own claim of separating performance from mitzvah. I’m probably quite inconsistent logically on this point. But what I do know is that this separation is what’s allowed me to even embark on the project of learning to leyn, and my 9th-grade students to embark on singing and dancing and acting on stage. And maybe the results of this doctrine are valuable enough to warrant holding on to it, even if I prove inconsistent in its application.

Procrastinating productively & eschewing urgency

I’m having an overly challenging year, mostly due to situations of my own contriving: two brand-new course preps and too many volunteer obligations. I’ve learned my lesson; eagerness for new challenges is one thing, and wearing myself out is entirely another! So I will make better decisions in future years, but in the meantime, I have this challenging year to get through. But I hate having “just get through this” as my daily mantra! I want to thrive, not just survive. So I’ve thought a lot over winter break about the “thriving” part that has been missing during the first half of the year and how to get it back.

And here’s what I’ve come up with: I miss the productive procrastination that has traditionally been a major part of my work life. Years ago, when I read John Perry’s essay on “structured procrastination,” I felt a wonderful rush of recognition: Someone had put into words what I’d been doing for ages! Perry writes,

“the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. … The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”

For years I’ve been doing interesting (at least to me) work that isn’t urgent, which I do mostly by taking advantage of the time that more conscientious teachers would fill with urgent work. This often takes the form of not wanting to grade and so therefore spending time thinking about the novel I’m teaching or writing new and interesting assignments. So my students are actually beneficiaries of my productive procrastination; it might take another day or two to get back their papers, but our class and our work together is more engaging. (And even then, I’m not actually slow about getting back work; I just have an overactive conscience in this regard.) But it also takes the form of reading and thinking and sometimes writing about things that aren’t related to school at all but that help me keep learning and being an interested (and therefore interesting) person.

But because of the two new course preps and the fact that I’m also teaching an extra class this year (a one-time favor to the department that I won’t be repeating, because it’s wearing me out!), I went into this year determined to stay on top of things, to be extra organized, to grade and return everything as quickly as I can, to make the best possible use of my time so that I don’t drop all of the balls that I’m trying to juggle.

The result: I’m having less fun and feeling less creative, and I’ve been dropping balls anyway.

So here are my New Year’s resolutions for the rest of the school year:

  • Eschew urgency. Resist as much as possible the sense that everything is on a tight deadline, because it probably really isn’t. (Dave Stuart, Jr. helpfully wrote a blog post on this very point just yesterday.)
  • Welcome my own tendency to productively procrastinate. Sometimes my inner Calvinist gets on my case and makes me feel bad about being a slacker, and that has absolutely been the case this past fall. But if “slacking” really just means “reading and writing things that aren’t immediately necessary,” then slacking is the recipe for the good life! Notice that I haven’t written in this blog for over two months, because there was always something that was urgent waiting for me, and clearly the blog doesn’t need to be written; but today, with grading awaiting me, I decided to write this instead — and of course the grading will still get done, because it has to.

And, in a larger way,

  • Seriously rethink the “more is better” tendency that my pedagogy has taken over the last few years. With the best of intentions, I’ve kept adding to the thinking and the work that I do for and about my students. Yes, I’m a better teacher now than when I began, but I’m also more exhausted. And when I wear myself out over a class, I always need to stop and ask myself if I’m wearing out my students as well.

I have a lot more thinking to do on that last point especially … and I’m totally going to do that thinking at some point, perhaps when I really ought to be doing something else.

How to act on my new ideas about grading?

I did a lot of reading last spring about how to assign grades such that they reflect students’ actual learning, rather than their compliance or timeliness or enthusiasm or other things that are fine qualities but not the same as learning. In particular, I became a big fan of Ken O’Connor’s How to Grade for Learning. Of course, putting his ideas into practice is an uphill job, given that I teach at a school with traditional grades, but I’m trying to build his ideas into my approach for grading within my traditional context.

One thing in particular that O’Connor convinced me of is that we should move away from averages for calculating grades, for “The mean always lets the bad overtake the good so that for every low mark earned, a student needs many good marks to return to his or her real level” (157) — something that probably every teacher has recognized at some point. If we must use a centralizing tendency, he argues, we would be better off using the median or the mode as a more accurate picture of  students’ learning, although even then he warns that “the more inconsistent a student’s performance is, the more none of the measures of central tendency work” (157). However, our online course management system calculates final grades only through averaging grades, and there isn’t really a way to disable that component of the system.

The most important point for me was O’Connor’s argument that “learning is incremental. Determining a grade should, therefore, be based on the trend in the student’s performance with considerable emphasis on the more recent assessments” (157). I think about this particularly with my 9th-graders, who learn and grow so much with every passing month; why shouldn’t their grade reflect what they know at the end of the term rather than how long it took them to get there?

I tried to craft my gradebook this year in light of what I had learned by following in the footsteps of a colleague who sets up two categories in his gradebook: working toward mastery (worth only 10% or so) and demonstrating mastery (90%). So homework and quizzes and the like would actually be worth very little for the term grade, and the term grade would essentially be based on only a few major assignments such as essays. And I’m feeling pretty good about how this system is working thus far for my 11th- and 12th-grade students …

… but it turns out that my 9th-grade students are a different story. I realized today that I pretty much want *everything* they do to be in the “working toward mastery” category because they really do know so much more with each passing week. I basically want everything to be practice until some future point when I’m finally willing to count their work as a true representation of their learning … maybe in June? Okay, so I need to give them a term grade in November, but what should be included in that grade if I really do want it to reflect what they can do in November rather than some average with what they could do in their first month of high school? At this point, every grade I’ve given has been in the “working toward mastery” category.

One option I’ve considered is to have the students submit a portfolio of revised writing at the end of the term, and only that portfolio grade would be in the “demonstrating mastery” category. On the one hand, that strikes me as odd … and on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense. It would mean that only revised work would count as demonstrating mastery, and the term grade would by necessity emphasize what they’ve done at the end of the term, since that’s when the portfolio would be due.

Life was so much easier when I was a college professor and assigned only two essays and a final exam!

I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on how you’ve set up your assignments and gradebook so that the term grade reflects as accurately as possible what the students have actually learned. It’s one thing to talk philosophically or abstractly about student learning, but I find the rubber-meets-the-road gradebook to be the challenge. I’m interested in what other teachers are doing!

Rebounding and rebooting

This year has been a hard reentry to school. A couple of new course preps, and a couple of new novels in the one “old” prep, mean that I have felt behind from the beginning of the year. I normally am a pretty organized teacher and school community member (although, sadly, that organization has never reached into my out-of-school life), but I’ve dropped balls regularly in the last month and a half.

A week ago Wednesday I hit a particularly low point … but the beauty of a good cry is that I often start feeling better pretty quickly afterward. It helped enormously that this past weekend was Columbus/Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and I took full advantage of the extra time to both catch up on some work and to get much-needed rest.

I did my best to limit my grading work to Saturday morning, when I was proctoring SATs, and Monday morning, when I was doing some volunteer work that required my presence only. That limitation meant that was I was focused and productive during those two sessions and that I felt no grading guilt during the rest of the weekend. And this experience reminds me of the importance of placing constraints on my working time — something I have not paid any attention to in the start of the year. (I reread some helpful advice on how a fixed schedule or time constraints can help productivity — and thus lessen guilt! See Dave Stuart, Jr. on Cal Newport here, as well as a good post from Dave back in 2015 about his fixed schedule for that year.)

I also took some time that weekend to not only sleep but also relax. I read a mystery novel just for fun, and I cross-stitched while listening to podcasts, which is one of my favorite R&R activities. And one of those podcasts happened to be Angela Watson (whose podcasts I’ve been listening to for a few years) on “How to Beat the October Blues” — perfect!

I really did feel like a new woman when I returned to school on Tuesday. And now that I’m in rebound mode, I’m also rebooting, giving myself what amounts to a new start for the school year. Sure, we’re six weeks into school … but we’re only six weeks into school, which means that most of the year is remaining. I’m not so much putting new ideas into place as I am remembering the old ideas that I wanted to keep working on but got too overwhelmed in September to deal with.

American Sign Language & class participation

“Things I’ve learned from my students” could obviously be the title of a very long series of blog posts! Here’s a cool thing I learned from my ninth-graders this week:

We were having a lively class discussion about Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, which was their required summer reading. It’s early days in the course, I want as many of them participating as possible, and both of my frosh courses are filled with eager students who want to chime in — hurrah! But we all know how challenging it can be to facilitate a conversation with lots of student hands up in the air. A good problem to have, but still! Am I calling on students equally? Are they listening to one another or just waiting to make their own point? Is the conversation going in circles or heading somewhere? How is the timing working?

During one of the conversational moments yesterday afternoon with lots of hands in the air, I called on a student, who gave a thoughtful answer. And then an unexpected thing happened: The other students who’d had their hands in the air, and who were clearly going to give a similar answer, started jiggling their right hands with their thumbs and pinkies in a Y shape with the other fingers curled down. What on earth?

And so I asked them: What on earth are you doing? What is this sign you’re making?

“Oh, it’s sign language for ‘me too. I agree.'” (Here’s someone demonstrating it.)

I agree, ASL

Wow.

What a fabulous way to get students listening to one another! And participating actively even when they’re not speaking! I told the class how exciting I found it to have so many “voices” chiming in even when people weren’t speaking. I said right then and there that I totally loved this and that I want us to keep this signing going in class.

I figured it must have come from one of the middle schoolers, but I asked a group of those teachers at lunch today, and they all agreed that it was fabulous, but no one knew who had started it. But several of them said that when one or more of their students had done it in class in the last couple of years, they too had loved it and had gotten others doing it. So maybe this is something that’s been spreading almost organically in our middle school and has only now filtered up to the middle school (to mix a metaphor)? But I’m not satisfied to leave it as organic; I want to institute this as part of our class conversation habits!

I asked the students what they did when they disagreed. Did they do a thumbs down or something? No, they said, they just didn’t do anything. But I don’t love the idea that you can only chime in soundlessly if you are in agreement. I don’t want to make this too complicated — the simplicity is part of the beauty — but I wonder if it’s worthwhile teaching them the sign for “disagree” as well? (Demonstrated here.)

Have you seen this at your school, and my school is only now catching up? Can you think of other ways we could be incorporating such non-verbal participation into class discussions? I’m so excited by the possibilities! I think I may use it just with my 9th-graders for now, since many of them are already doing it, and then perhaps expand it to my older students.

Authorial intent and Talmud

I said in my first blog post that teaching and reading and writing and being Jewish all overlap in my mind, and here is the perfect example:

Yesterday in Torah study, the rabbi reminded us of the famous “oven of Achnai” story in the Talmud (Beva Metzia 59b):

We have been taught: In the case of a person who made an oven by cutting coils of clay and placing them one on top of the other — Rabbi Eliezer declared that such an oven is not susceptible to defilement, but the Sages said it is. The oven discussed is called “the oven of Achnai” — “a snake” — because they heaped arguments around it like a snake.

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every possible legal argument in the world [to support his viewpoint], but the Sages did not accept any of them. He said to them: “If the halakhah [the ‘correct’ legal ruling, ‘the way to go’] should be according to my opinion, let this carob tree prove it!” The carob tree became uprooted from its place, and jumped 100 cubits high into the air — some people say it was 400 cubits high. But the Sages said to him: “We do not accept testimony from carob trees.” Once again he said to them: “If the halakhah should be according to my opinion, let this channel of water prove it!” The channel of water began to flow backwards. But the Sages said to him: “We do not accept testimony from channels of water.” Once again he said to them: “If the halakhah should be according to my opinion, let the walls of the House of Study prove it!” The walls of the House of Study began to tilt as if they would fall. But Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked the walls, saying: “If students of Torah are arguing with each other about matters of halakhah, what should it matter to you?!” They did not fall, out of deference to Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten up, out of deference to Rabbi Eliezer. To this day, they are still tilted. Once again, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “If the halakhah should be according to my opinion, let the Heavens prove it!” A Divine Voice [bat kol] called out from the Heavens and said: “Why do you dispute Rabbi Eliezer, with whom the halakhah always agrees?!” But Rabbi Yehoshua stood up on his feet and quoted (Deuteronomy 30:12): “It [the Torah] is not in heaven!”

— What does “It is not in heaven” mean? Rabbi Jeremiah said: It means that because the Torah was given to us at Mount Sinai, we do not make rulings according to the Divine Voice. Rather, it is written in Torah (Exodus 23:2): “After the majority must you incline.”

Later, Rabbi Natan met up with Elijah the Prophet and asked, “What did the Holy One blessed be He do at that moment [of the discussion]?” He said: “He smiled [with joy] and said: ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.'”

There is so much that is fabulous in that Talmud story, but the English teacher in me always seizes on the fact that the author (or, in this case, Author) stops having complete ownership over the text once it is published. It now belongs to the readers, and we can do what we like with it, including things that the author might not have envisioned and might not be particularly happy about. (I’m talking here about making meaning, not about copyright and legal ownership, obviously.)

One of the things that my students regularly ask me — and I’m sure the true of every literature teacher out there — is “but is that really what the author meant?” And one answer, of course, is “it doesn’t matter one whit what the author meant.” I usually go for the milder “There are often things in the text that the author him or herself doesn’t recognize, including assumptions and worldviews that the author is blind to. And the readers are partners with the author in making meaning out of the text. Authors may write with an audience in mind, but they can’t control what the audience thinks or how they respond.”

In another direction: One person in the Torah study yesterday gave the example of teaching his daughter to play chess and the sheer joy he felt when she then beat him at the very game he’d taught her. That’s another lovely reading of the Talmud story for teachers: “Listen, I’ll teach you what I know, and I’m hoping you’ll go on and know much more than I do.”

And on that note, it’s time for me to go practice chanting the blessing before and after the Haftorah for tomorrow morning’s Rosh Hashanah service (which me luck!) and to wish you all l’shana tova, Happy New Year!

Thinking about students’ key beliefs and questions

Dave Stuart, Jr. (whose blog and whose book These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most I highly recommend) talks about “the five research-based key beliefs that drive student learning behaviors” (T6T 27-28):

  1. Credibility: I believe in my teacher. (She knows her stuff, treats people fairly, and cares about me as a person and a learner.)
  2. Belonging: I belong in this classroom. (People like me belong in this space and can do this work.)
  3. Effort: I can improve through my effort. (Basically growth mindset — doing well at this subject isn’t just about inherent qualities but is about putting in the work with effective feedback.)
  4. Efficacy: I can succeed at this. (I can actually do this work — if not now, then eventually.)
  5. Value: This work has value for me. (There are connections between the work of this course and the things I care about or want to do.)

Dave talks about all of these in chapter 2 of These 6 Things (and at greater length in his online course on student motivation), and one of my goals for this year is to cultivate those beliefs in my students. After all, what’s the point in my showing up each day if students are convinced that there’s no point to what we’re doing or that people like them can’t succeed in my classroom or that I don’t really care about them?

And then this week, during our teacher meetings before school starts next week, a colleague reminded me of the work of Rosetta Lee, a diversity educator who teaches at Seattle Girls’ School. I’d first heard of her work a couple years ago at a one-day diversity education workshop done by the same folks who direct the annual summer Multicultural Teaching Institute at Meadowbrook School in Weston, MA. My colleague had been to MTI this past summer and shared with us Rosetta Lee’s work, which prompted me to remember my own exposure to her ideas.

(Side note to add that this forgetfulness of mine is one of the things I worry about even with excellent professional development opportunities. I can be inspired by something I hear in a one-day or even one-week workshop, but it’s so easy then to forget about it once I’m back in my regular surroundings. How do we hold onto the great stuff we learn so that we can actually build on it in our normal school lives? This blog is one attempt to write about and therefore actually learn the things that I hear about.)

Anyway, Rosetta Lee argues that students — particularly students of color and those who are marginalized in some way — have four questions of any teacher or new educational experience:

  1. Do you see me? (Do I think you care about me? Am I represented in the curriculum and on the walls of the classroom/school?
  2. Do you hear me? (Do you acknowledge my previous experiences and my previous knowledge? Do you seek and respond to student feedback? Are you empathetic? Do you give students some choices?)
  3. Will you treat me fairly? (Are the expectations clear? Will you support me if I struggle? Is there consistency in our classroom?)
  4. Will you protect me? (Do you understand my identity and experience even if you don’t share it? Will you interrupt exclusive or oppressive behaviors? Do you get cultural differences?)

It’s interesting to put these two lists together. I think that Rosetta Lee’s questions mostly fit into #1 and #2 of Dave Stuart’s beliefs: teacher credibility and belonging. That is, she’s breaking down and making explicit the culturally inclusive work that informs Dave’s list. (Dave is explicit about this as well, especially in his online student motivation course. I find Rosetta Lee’s four questions a helpful way to bring that cultural inclusion to the forefront of my brain.)

I’m going to make myself a sign to tape onto one of my desk drawers so that I’m literally seeing these beliefs and questions every day when I come into the classroom.

On not quite finishing what I start

I have a bad tendency of not quite finishing books I’m reading, especially nonfiction. I mean to finish them, but I often don’t get around to it.

This is different from intentionally bailing on a book, which I’m happy to do when I’m not liking it. And I loved reading librarian Nancy Pearl’s advice that, if you decide to ditch a novel, go ahead and read the last couple of pages if you want to know what happens but don’t want to slog through the book. But she holds herself to a stricter standard than I do about deciding to ditch a book; her “rule of 50” is that you should always give a book 50 pages before deciding to quit … until you’re older than 50, at which point subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages before allowing yourself to quit — so the number of requisite pages goes down as you have less and less time to waste. My own rule is one chapter; if I’m not gripped by a book by the end of the first chapter, I’m gone. Life is too short to read books I’m not enjoying.

(That rule goes only for optional books, of course. I’m now three chapters into a novel that I would probably ditch if I could, but the life of an English teacher is one of occasionally reading a book because one has to.)

But what I’m talking about in my opening paragraph here is nonfiction books that I’m liking and totally mean to read all of but then I get distracted and never quite get around to finishing. I am usually reading multiple books at any given moment and have a bad habit of starting new books as soon as they come into the house, but then books keep moving to the bottom of the pile on my bedside table. And eventually the pile gets so high that it falls over, and then I stack them on the floor next to the table and start a new pile. And then I move the latest pile to a bookshelf. And some of those books just never get opened again. And these are books that I really want to read! So I get frustrated with myself.

Joining Goodreads last year has helped, because those books are still sitting there in “Currently Reading” even if I’ve put the books on a shelf somewhere. But this is why there are over ten books right now on my Currently Reading list! It was 16 a week ago, but I’ve been prioritizing wrapping up books now that school is starting the day after tomorrow.

But here’s a nice postscript that makes me feel better about this bad habit of mine: I’m currently doing tons of volunteer labor to set up a lovely new library space for my temple, and last week we got a four-box donation of books. An elderly former member of the temple had died, and his daughter brought a bunch of books from his home library to us. And wow, he was a reader with great taste; donations are usually a mixed blessing at best, but either he didn’t own any dud books or his daughter had selected only the great books to give to us. And he really read them; a lot of the books had post-it notes stuck on multiple pages with notes to himself about the reading. Quite a well-read and thoughtful man, obviously; may his memory be for a blessing.

But what particularly cheered me was realizing how many of his books he’d never quite finished reading! There would be his scrawled-on post-it notes in the margins … and then there would be a bookmark at about the two-thirds point, and no notes afterward. Or he would have used the back flap of the dust jacket as a bookmark, and it would still be stuck in the last quarter of the book. Clearly I’m not the only one with this habit!

And yet does this make him less of a reader? Or does it just make him a certain type of reader? Whichever it is, I now think of him as a brother in readerly spirit, and I’m glad for his company. I’ll think of him the next time I pick up one of my half-read books.

Here’s the current half-read list, by the way, and I’m only including those books that have been partially read for at least three months (and in some cases for over a year):

  • Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America
  • Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
  • Charlotte Gordon, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley
  • Daniel Gordis, Home to Stay: One American Family’s of Miracles and Struggles in Contemporary Israel
  • Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes
  • Peter Cozzens, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West
  • Ibram X. Kennedy, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
  • Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice

“written by an actual human being”

I’ve often felt that I am a good academic writer and that, simultaneously, I am not a good academic writer.

I think my scholarly prose at its best is fairly lively, with a real sense of a human being coming through, and I try to picture my audience as I revise. At the same time, when I’ve read other people’s articles, half the time I think, “I could never write like this. I can’t even follow some of this. This must be written by someone smarter than I am, for people who are smarter than I am.” I try to write the kind of articles that I like to read, but then I have bouts of anxiety that what I like to read marks me as less intellectual than others.

This occasional feeling of not being worthy or capable of academic prose has only increased since I left academia (which is a rather depressing story, but darn it, I got tenure and only then left! and I’m much happier now, so there’s a happy ending). I have written and published several academic articles since I stopped being a college professor and became a high school teacher, but I’ve done so irregularly enough that it hasn’t translated into a solid confidence. But then again, maybe lots of people don’t have that confidence.

So I was cheered this morning, as I finished reading Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, to come across a profile of Elizabeth Knoll, former senior editor at large at Harvard University Press (Sword 189). I found her words such a boost that I’m recording them here for my future, anxious self to read again later:

I look for work that is interesting, stimulating, original, provocative without just being crackpot, thoughtful without being solemn or unreadably earnest, ambitious without being grandiose, and most of all — and this is really important to me — sounding like it was written by an actual human being and not cranked out by some kind of machine for emitting academic prose. …

[Most academic writers] are overcautious. They take too long to get to the point, and they don’t quite get to the point. They overexplain. They use too many examples. They repeat themselves. They are a little circuitous, and even if they have piled up an awful lot of evidence to make a point strongly — as strongly as they could — they muffle themselves with too many words. It’s like the snowfall that obliterates all the features of the landscape. A snowfall of words that just cuts out any sound.

Certainly there is much in here that is a proper corrective for me; I tend to be wordy and circuitous, which is something I always have to tackle in revision. But I also think that some of the articles that I have found hard to read might be what Knoll would call “cranked out by some kind of machine for emitting academic prose.” I need to stop assuming that things that are different from me are automatically better than me.

That has all been current events for me since I just submitted an article to a scholarly journal a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in a few years. Most of the articles I read as I was writing were great, but a couple were really theoretical and hard to work through, and when I got to the end I wasn’t sure what I had read. A confession: I had the chance to go to a lunchtime conversation with one of them, who was at a nearby college for the term, and I bailed out at the last minute because I was too scared to sit in the same room with someone who seemed so much smarter. Don’t get me wrong: I love it when people are smarter than I am! But when they’re smarter than I am at the very thing I’m working on in that moment and am already feeling anxious about, that makes it harder.

I’m creating a category of “needed reminders” for exactly this sort of thing — the kind of advice that I need on a regular basis.