Sunday, December 29, 2019

(A Critique of) Judgment Calls

We don't soon get over judgment of others, said Mary Grace Orr, at insight meditation this morning in Volcano. She quoted Ram Dass as saying we should think of people as being like trees. "Who said I don't judge trees?" my husband asked when I told him. Well, there's that.

Late this past semester, I asked my introductory creative writing students, first in my office, and then in class, to tell me their strengths as a writer, and then to say what they still wanted to work on. It was as if the first half of the question hadn't been uttered; they jumped quickly to "I'm bad at ____"; or "I can't do ____." But what are you good at? I'd ask, and they'd tell me they couldn't say what. Nothing about facility with metaphor or turn of phrase or empathy, nothing until they were prompted again, but then the answers sounded sheepish. "That would be narcissistic," said one student. No, it would not, I responded. A joke about the president came after.

The day before their final projects were due, I asked them what we could talk about that would help them to complete their chapbooks. There were a few questions about covers and book construction, but at least half of them responded with (actually, without), "Confidence." As if we could give them that in one class session at the end of the semester. "It's our generation," one student said. "None of us has any confidence."

Two years ago, I was teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me to Honors students (freshmen) for the second time. The first time the class had taken valuable lessons from his experience as a black man in America. This time (just after the shift from Obama to Trump) several students said that Coates was "too angry." They resisted his book. How could he be so angry. It put them off. So I asked the most judgmental of the students to read a paragraph of the book out loud to us without adding any comments along the way. Just read it. Then, I asked her to tell the class exactly what the paragraph had said, without adding any commentary. This exercise didn't go smoothly, but it was certainly instructive.

As I get older, my teaching gets less rigorous as intellectual transfer. My students learn less about the rules for things, though I still insist on a grounding in history. It gets more rigorous as a counter-intuitive paring away of judgments, especially when they occur quickly. The effort to see the world as it is, rather than to re-imagine it through the curious utopianism of critique, is what I try to instill in them. That this effort proves more difficult than judgment intrigues and disturbs me. At the beginning of each semester from now on I'll hand out my sheets of attention exercises, intended to get students out of their heads rather than farther into them. (Note, not "out of their minds" in the sense it's usually intended, though a loosening of boundaries around creativity is also necessary; students show up to creative writing classes in shackles!) Let me append the list of exercises, so far, here:

Attention Exercises
Prof. Susan M. Schultz
214 Kuykendall

Attention exercises

Do these exercises without doing anything else at the same time. No computer, no phone, no music, nothing. Then write in intense detail about what you noticed. Do not use judgment words, or “poetic” language. Write at least 250-300 words each.

1. Look at a raisin for eight full minutes, then eat it very slowly.

2. Take your dog on a walk and notice what your dog notices.

3. Spend 15 minutes watching and listening to your cat. (Any animal is fine, including geckos, lizards, guinea pigs, and so on.)

4. Spend 15 minutes sitting in a public place (bus stop, mall, etc.). What do you hear and see?

5. Spend 15 minutes with a photograph or a still from the television. Describe exactly what you see. You might also draw what you see, if you wish. Then write about the process of drawing what you saw.

6. Sit somewhere and turn off one of your senses: close your eyes or ears.

7. Start a conversation with a stranger. Where does it go?

8. Take a ½ hour walk to somewhere you don’t need to go. What do you see and hear?

9. Go to the art museum, on campus or downtown, and spend 15 minutes with a painting or piece of sculpture.

10. Take the same walk for many days in a row and find something different each time. Make a list as you go.

11. Meditate for 10-20 minutes a day.

12. Walk at different speeds, exceedingly slow to very fast.

13. Listen carefully to fast and slow talkers.

14. Watch the hand gestures of people around you.

15. Watch a baseball game on television and watch the catcher throw the ball back to the pitcher, as well as other parts of the game that don’t contribute to its score.

16. Watch a football game and watch action away from the ball.

17. Talk to a homeless person; offer him or her something to eat.

18. Play with children.

19. Cook something you’ve never cooked before.

20. Listen to audio in a language you don’t speak. What do you notice, or think that you notice?

21. Figure out what your favorite words are, and those of your friends.

22. Read what you’ve written as if it’s by someone else. What do you notice about the language, the sentence structure, the tone?

23. Learn to ride a unicycle or play the flute. Take notes on your progress.

24. Eat very slowly and write down your sensations.

25. Read signs. Read bumper stickers. Look for flags and other symbols on vehicles.

26. Notice typos and other mistakes.

27. Walk slowly on the beach and describe your sensations.

28. Go snorkeling and list all the fish you see, what they look like, how they act, and what their colors are.

29. Read or listen to an opinion you disagree with. What do you notice when you take away your judgment?

30. Keep a journal of the weather (clouds, sun, rain, etc.)

As I sit in Volcano on the Big Island, I remember Albert Saijo, who lived around the corner from here. His life's writing swung wildly between rants against government and other institutions, detailed descriptions of animals and the marvelous effects of marijuana; late in his life, when he was frail, he simply noted the weather. There would be several entries a day in a small notebook, to record the rain, the clouds, the wind.

Over time, we get whittled down to this: looking out our window and seeing the patterns of sunlight and shadow on a brown fence, listening to the birds in the canopy of ohia. Our judgment is fear of losing this fragile place. There is so much to fear. Perhaps confidence is not what we're looking for, but somthing more flexible and stubborn.

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