How to Assassinate Boredom: Reading and Writing our Lives

4 Oct
Thinking Outside the Book

Thinking outside the book: a 3D graphic organizer I made,  illustrating the reading and learning process.  A number of the pen-strokes that compose the image are actually cursive words, notes on the underlying texts, which run together, below and to the left, right through the borders of the page.

Metacognition: Thinking about our thought processes

( One part Zen mindfulness, one part revolutionary consciousness, one part creative activity.  Mix and stir vigorously )

Reading Strategies: thought processes we use to create meaning from a text

( Don’t worry if this meaning spills outside the borders of the text; this is natural, and to be expected )

Objective: You decide.

(  As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing )

These are the  concepts I’ve been teaching the past few weeks.

When I first meet them, most of my students think reading is boring because they think it involves scrolling through the text looking for the trivial piece of information the teacher wants them to regurgitate as the correct answer.  I want them to be able to use reading to assassinate their boredom.   But to do that, they have to stop putting their lives on hold the minute they start reading.  They have to learn how to relax and allow their lives and the text to flow together by becoming aware of their own thoughts and feelings as they encounter the text.

I want them to do this together, because it’s more meaningful that way.   As Hegel argued, we can only grow  when we spar with other peoples’ minds.  And in a society based on oppression, we only develop when we  overcome the roles of  master and slave that we work ourselves and each other into.  I want each student to recognize that his thoughts and feelings are simply one trajectory of possibility emerging out of the text and the world; his peers bring different experiences and ideas to the table as well,  experiences shaped by the races, genders, and classes this society has assigned them into.  The experience of reading blooms when we all declare and transform these experiences, and when we actively rebel against the systems of power that confine us to our identities and elevate some of us over others.

Reading together is one moment among many when this can happen.  Really it’s about active listening.  It’s about the texture of a cypher, the cheers and hollers of other peoples’ voices that shout “go in”, pushing us to freestyle life, instead of just watching it from the sidelines.  It is the chorus of  emotions that give us the courage to speak freely.

I want my students – and all of us –  to replace our awkward, Facebook-fueled self-consciousness with that rush of grace that comes from adding a chapter to the much larger story we are all reading and writing together.

If they are going to do this, they need to remember that both their lives and the text are human creations, produced with specific cognitive technologies: tools and strategies that they can all learn to wield gracefully.  Neither the text nor its interpretation is set in stone by a permanent authority who can never be challenged.   A text is not a sacred object that must be protected from the rest of the world.  You can draw on it with your pen.  You can draw insight out of it with your mind, breaking the borders between the text and the world.  You can even draw it as a weapon as you set out to change this world.

Teaching myself to teach my students to teach themselves 

Reading this way can be dangerous.   But that’s exactly why I encourage my students to try it at home.  I do myself.  In fact, I’ve started using my own teaching methods, teaching myself to enjoy reading more actively.  And it really works.   I have decades of education and two masters degrees behind me, but it feels like I just learned to read!  (Maybe I’ve unlearned some of the boredom I had picked up in school.)  In any case, I want to read everything I can get my hands on.

So recently, when I sit down to plan lessons, I start with these questions: what do I do in order to love reading this much?  How can I share this love with my students?  How can I teach them to teach themselves,  like I teach myself?

When I read, I imagine the sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells conveyed in a text.   I  think about how people I know – friends and enemies – would respond to the text.  Would they debate it, would they draw all over it, would they throw it at me in frustration, or would they use it as a tool to solve problems in their lives?   I’m working on part three of my Reading for Revolution series, which will map out these reading strategies more specifically.

The vulnerable creativity of reading and writing 

All of this requires seeing the text as an open-ended process, an ancient yet relevant technology.  It is one-third-magic, one-third machine, and one-third living organism.  It flows like the rhizomatic neural networks of tree roots in the movie Avatar  So do our identities and our consciousnesses.

The text is fallible, contradictory, and unfinished – just like us.  But it also has potential running in every different direction, just like us.  We could get lost running down the rabbit hole that every clue leads us into.  So part of reading strategically means finding the most  promising and meaningful paths, and letting some of the other ones go. Good authors drop hints that point in these  directions, but they never leave you a hyperlink saying “click here.”

That’s because they don’t want to impose all of the answers.  And, in all honesty, they may not know them yet anyway.  Every book is a rough draft waiting for a new edition, a sequel, or a counter-polemic.  The author longs for readers who will not only understand, but will finish the process started in the text.  A good author draws from currents of life that came before, and provokes an explosion of new discourses that flow outward from that point onward.

In that sense, writing is a vulnerable act;  you leave tentative ideas for others to complete or destroy.   Reading in public is also vulnerable, because it it involves blurring the boundary between your consciousness and the text, and this inevitably involves sharing a bit of your consciousness and the experiences you bring to the text.

Let’s be real: most of our classrooms right now are not safe enough places for youth to do this, especially if they are women, gender nonconforming folks, LGBTQ folks, youth of color, or working class and low income students.  So the first step in teaching metacognitive reading strategies needs to be establishing a respectful, egalitarian, communal class.

It is also important to explicitly reaffirm that it is more beneficial to fail and to understand why then it is to succeed and not know why.  That’s my class’s mantra.   Over the long run, those who fail wisely will learn more and will create new forms of success that the people who set the original standard for success could never imagine.   Students will only open up in class if the teacher and students collaborate to turn down the volume on all the (inner) voices that say “you are not good enough”, “you are crazy for thinking that”, “you’re a freak”, “you’re too ______”,  “your’e not _____ enough”, “if you think that , they’ll all say______”.

As researcher Brene Brown argues , vulnerability is the key to creativity.  So working through shame is the starting point for living a vibrant, connected life.   I would add that it is also the starting point for any type of social transformation.   Schools construct a veil of shame around reading, especially for those high school students who have been tracked into classes and labeled “stupid”, “remedial”, or “below standard”.

This is so destructive because it sacrifices everything good in life at the altar of perfection.   The manic obsession with testing contributes to this awkward sacrifice by pitting students – and teachers – against each other in frenzied competition to meet and exceed abstract,  arbitrary, and often inaccurate standards.   When there is a test to prepare for, who has the relaxed state of mind necessary to gracefully make mistakes?  Who has the committed flexibility necessary to analyze these mistakes  and learn from them? In the name of rigor and progress, we destroy experimentation and growth.

The sacred texts are still unfolding –  write now as you read

As teachers are always saying, good writers show ;  they don’t tell.  They leave something for the reader to imagine, and their assertions are experimental and unfinished.   A poet uses a metaphor instead of a blunt accusation.  A scientist shares her test  results and ends with a tentative conclusion, knowing that truth is embedded in a process of refinement through future experimentation.   The most brilliant intellectuals all respect the fact that we create and recreate our minds.  So when we apply our minds to a text, we create our experience of that text, just like the author created the text itself.

And what we create is not just an abstract fantasy.  When we learn, it literally reshapes the neural networks in our brain, uprooting some and branching out to intertwine with others.  Chemical particles move and blood rushes to feed cleavages, folds, and swerves of growth.  Our consciousness is a  human production, because our brains are parts of our bodies, and  our bodies are parts of the world.  The world is always changing, and part of that change is the product of our activity; we transform ourselves as we transform the world.

When we become mindful of this process, we can hone it.   Our brains are organs, and we can exercise them just like we exercise our arms and legs.  We can start by honing in on one aspect of life that we’ve neglected or repressed, and we can move beyond the boring, confined answers we’ve already come up with, wrestling with that problem from new angles we didn’t think were possible, and solving it – not only in our minds, but  in lived, embodied practice.  Our thoughts emerge out of the physical world that births our embodied brains; we return them to the physical world by using our hands and the rest of our bodies to make new things, and to care for new people.

This is human labor conceived as self-activity, as embodied creativity.  Our labor breathes as part of the earth’s metabolism, shaped into consciousness by our blood, sweat, and tears (of joy and sorrow).   But usually we can’t see this, because we spend our time working too hard, to the point where it all just seems natural and numb.   Meaning given and unchanging.

The social origins of boredom and television

We miss all of this because we get used to producing for someone else – a boss, a teacher, the test, the marketplace – instead of creating freely for ourselves and each other and the earth.   We watch the hours until we can clock out, go home, and passively consume officially approved texts – TV scripts, song lyrics, whatever we can sip on to dull the pain or banish the boredom.  We have lost the ability to entertain ourselves, so we have a desperate need to be entertained.   We’ve lost this ability because the most entertaining thing a human being can do is to create ourselves together, and it’s hard to do that from a couch, cubicle, assembly line, or classroom desk.

Because our pre-packaged entertainment is never enough,  it leaves us bored and disconnected from ourselves and each other.   We take that boredom back into the classroom with us.  And that leaves us indifferent when we are exposed to the very tools we could use to produce our own shows and our own lyrics – or even better yet, to produce a life we won’t feel the need to escape from.

So here is the secret they won’t tell us on TV or in the classroom:  we have the capacity to  read and write the stories of our own lives, through our literal literacy, and also through the self-activity, the many-sided capacities for labor and physical transformation that lay dormant in our minds and bodies, waiting to be awakened through social learning and rebellious life.

Hey NSA: you can read this, but you can’t read my thoughts about it

Before I go further with that thought, maybe I should stop and check to see if they’ve made it illegal yet.    Who knows – many good and true things, from wildcat strikes to tent city occupations, are illegal.   As we try to transform the world, there is no doubt that the government will try to stop us.

But as my students often tell me, learning is the one thing they can’t take away from us.  What’s most amazing about creative, critical literacy  is that it can never  be fully surveilled because it can’t even be fully measured.  Like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it changes the minute you try to observe it.  Trying to read our minds is like trying to crucify a jellyfish.

They haven’t figured out how to plug our brains directly into the internet yet, so the tentative, provocative, exhilarating, and sometimes scary thoughts that we all experiment with when we read and write have time to gestate.   They are not immediately posted on our Facebook walls, Twitter accounts, or some NSA spy’s console, to be measured, trolled, liked, disliked, co-opted, sold, mocked, or repressed.  And here’s another thing that’s not a coincidence: they also can’t be tested.  Bill Gates will be so disappointed when he finally figures that out.

When we travel to worlds created by a book, we can continuously co-create these worlds with the author, in a graceful dance that is sometimes risky because it requires that we step out of the characters we have written for ourselves and confined ourselves with in.  When we enter these words and worlds, this movement is not traced on Google Maps, Facebook, Foursquare, or the FBI’s computer networks.  We go off the grid, out of bounds, and beyond the law.   We even slip out of the confines of the book, the page, the text itself.  Someone else reading the same book might not even detect the traces of our departure.

The NSA and FBI should be worried about this.  They are pretty stupid to think they can scare everyone into paranoid self-consciousnes through online surveillance.  Especially when there are all sorts of subversive books hidden in plain sight in your local library.  They should be worried that some of us might read those books and get inspired to take actual,  physical action to begin co-creating the worlds we imagine.  They should be worried that we start creating them not simply as an afternoon fantasy or a highbrow hallucination, but as an actual, material reality – a movement, an uprising, a revolution, a commune.

To get to that point, we can start by teaching ourselves how to create our lives like the author creates the text, and we can write draft after draft without jumping ourselves because the first one isn’t perfect.   Revolution doesn’t operate on a schedule with school bells and factory whistles.  The draft we discard one day may end up being the basis for building the tools we need to win our freedom.

To the administrators, testmakers, and state surveillance experts, the results of our studies look like idle doodling, a waste of time that can’t be tested or measured.  For now, they let this slip through the cracks because it looks like passive, infantile rebellion, not dangerous insubordination.

That’s because they can’t see that our doodles and daydreams are actually graphic organizers we use to remember our way to the futures we aim to create.  They are not entertainment or fantasy; they are plans.  They are cookbooks full of recipes for transcending capitalism’s disasters.  They are blueprints for dwelling places occupied by free people who build them for each other, not for profit or a test score.


9 Responses to “How to Assassinate Boredom: Reading and Writing our Lives”

  1. Jeff Nguyen October 4, 2013 at 12:39 am #

    Well thought out and presented. I teach first graders and regret that we’ve wasted the past decade making children think writing is always in the format of a 5-paragraph essay whose origin is a bland prompt that ensures that they never get to know their own voice, lest they use that voice to write or speak out against anything that really matters.

    • mamos206 October 4, 2013 at 2:21 am #

      Thanks. I know right? We act as if grown ups go around writing 5 paragraph essays to each other. Since when has a famous work of literature – or a useful everyday communication- taken on the form of a 5 paragraph essay?

    • mamos206 October 5, 2013 at 1:10 am #

      Also, thanks for reposting this on your blog, I really appreciate it.

  2. freeuniverseity October 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Reblogged this on Free UniversE-ity.

  3. chad October 21, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    More vulnerability and Brene Brown. Hooray! Vulnerability has been the thawing of frigid mind sets that have paralyzed me from writing in the past. Now that I’m willing to shed a tear or fess up how I feel towards someone, their behavior or their actions, I don’t deny my own emotions. For two decades, I pretended that I didn’t have feelings or a stake in decisions that affected my own life. In my attempts to be a soft-spoken man, I denied my needs, which denied me meaningful, liberating relationships.

    Now that I spend more time in the emotional quadrant of my life, I have quieted the naysaying voices that used to choke my voice before I could complete a written sentence.

    • mamos206 October 24, 2013 at 1:04 am #

      I’m glad to hear that Chad. Do you think that what you’re describing is related to the gender roles enforced by a patriarchal/ sexist system? As in, men are not “supposed” to be emotional, or at least aren’t supposed to show it?

      I’d like to discuss more how gender affects the reading and writing process. One of the most moving experiences I’ve had in the classroom was seeing a hardcore gangster get up in front of the class and read a poem he wrote about how he lost the chance to build a meaningful relationship with a young woman because he had mistreated her and hadn’t taken responsibility for communicating his feelings. He started tearing up as he read it, and instead of mocking him, the other students were supportive and encouraging. At the same time, this powerful vulnerability seemed so significant because it is unfortunately rare in high school classrooms.

  4. kloncke October 23, 2013 at 2:12 am #

    “Trying to read our minds is like trying to crucify a jellyfish.”

    This line has stuck with me for weeks! As has your description of feeling so exhausted and uninspired from work or school that all we want to do is be entertained.

    Unfortunately, the inability of the NSA to read our minds comes as cold comfort when we not only wish to think creatively, but to communicate in shared language, as well. That, to me, seems to be a huge and real fear inspired by totalitarian movements — especially in situations when people live in fear of neighbors possibly turning them in to the police.

    Not to diminish your point about the creative impulse (and mindfulness) as unassailably under our own control. But it’s so insidious to me that surveillance, or even criminalization of certain languages, thwarts our ability to share what we create, and co-create.

    I would love to hear more about how your students are responding in these conversations about reading. It seems to me that, these days, video and other media are becoming hugely important forms of communication — maybe almost as significant a change as when the printing press (plus colonization) slowly wiped out oral traditions of knowledge-sharing. I grew up as a bookworm, and kids these days who have access to certain technology not only consume a lot of media, but can also create mind-blowing stuff.

    “As Hegel argued, we can only grow when we spar with other peoples’ minds.”

    I’m not sure I understand how the verb “spar” relates to the other points you’re making. You seem to take a more collaborative approach. I can understand people’s assumptions being challenged when they encounter people with very different ideas and experiences, but sparring seems to me to imply an already adversarial stance… Can you say more about that?

    That’s all for now, but would love to keep talking and thinking on this! Thanks for writing and sharing.

    • mamos206 October 24, 2013 at 1:32 am #

      Thanks for your comments Kloncke. I agree with your point about the need to communicate, not just think, and how this is jeopardized by state repression. The self-censorship, hyper-vigiance and general anxiety provoked by state repression can blunt creativity. In fact, I think that’s one of the main goals of repression in the U.S. today. Because it still formally claims to be a “democracy”, the state doesn’t just lock up every critic. However, the state, corporations, and other private repressive entities do use fear, disruption, and manufactured divisions to shape the content of movements, to blunt their creative edges, and to make potential revolutionaries more rigid, more paranoid, and less creative.

      I’m often cautious to write what I write on this blog, thinking it might lead me to be blacklisted from teaching, or it might be used by right wingers, COINTELPRO agents, or other forces to attack me, my students, or my loved ones. This creates a false sense of having to revise and edit everything to make it perfect, ready to last under fire. And that can take the fun of out writing, by killing the vulnerable, “rough draft” speech that is always the cutting edge of a new discourse as it grows.

      Just look at what happened to the Chicano/a / Raza Studies teachers in Tuscon, AZ! They were scrutinized under a microscope and ripped apart on national television, their relationships with their students became a battleground for the racist right, and their pedagogy was outlawed.

      I think I’d write a lot more frequently if I didn’t have to invest so much time and energy into negotiating and strategizing how to get out what I want to say while ducking under the censors, writing under pen-names, etc. I’ve often fantasized what it would be like to write and create in the new society, after the revolution, when we won’t have to worry about any of this anymore. This is also a good reason to fight to make sure that the revolution itself never degrades into a state capitalist dictatorship like the USSR.

      In terms of the idea of “sparring”, I think that’s not the best metaphor for what I’m getting at, and I’m glad you pointed that out. I do believe in a collaborative, non-competitive approach to learning and communication. Some forms of competition, like sparring in a martial arts class, or certain types of rap battles, can foster a collaborative approach, because they’re more about affirming the team or the cypher, rather than the individual contestant. But overall, I think we need dialogue and generative debate, not an ethos of “I’m going to crush you and destroy your argument until you don’t want to speak anymore.” Dialectical growth may mean critiquing and deconstructing an opposing argument, but it also means taking the grain of truth in that argument and incorporating it into an enlarged understanding of the world, while casting off the elements of one’s own consciousness that are challenged by the other person’s argument.

      I think Hegel would agree. In Phenomenology of Spirit, he talks about how our consciousness can only grow when it is recognized by other people, when other people treat us as subjects, not just objects of their own minds to be used for their own purposes. We learn as we encounter others and are encountered by them. However, he recognizes that this is jeopardized by power dynamics between people. Not everyone will allow themselves to recognize and be recognized; instead, they will try to dominate and impose their consciousness on others, treating them like objects. We see this in terms of race, gender, and class. That’s why Hegel talks about the master-slave dialectic; through the struggle against slavery, through risking their life itself, enslaved people assert they are not slaves, they are human beings with subjectivity and the ability to shape the world through their creative labor. Fanon narrates a similar process in the struggle against colonialism. But all of that is not really sparring; it is a fight to the death in order to live a human life.

      I’m slowly working on a piece that will analyze this process of conscientization in struggles against less life-or-death power dynamics, e.g. the forms of racial and gender domination that exist in classrooms, activist meetings, etc. What do you do when it’s not a matter of heading up, but it’s also a necessary conflict that can’t simply be facilitated away through good process, progressive stack, and ground rules for respectful communication?


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