Posts Tagged: university of windsor

e. e. cummings, jimi hendrix’s guitar, and the power of a metaphor

…or another Ken Long story.

One of the things I learned in doing my adult education degree is that people process new information based on their individual experiences and accumulated knowledge. Each of us absorbs (or rejects) information in a different way, and if we reflect on new information against our own life experiences, we can come to a more meaningful understanding. If new knowledge is meaningful to us, it changes us somehow. In education circles, that’s called transformative learning.

I didn’t know or really care about any of that when I went to university the first time. All I knew was that I was ten years older than most of my lecture hall peers, and I felt out of touch and out of place. But my first English professor, Ken Long, taught me about transformative learning a most impactful way.

So there are my classmates and me, wearing all manner of perplexed expressions as Long tries to get us to analyze this poem by E. E. Cummings:

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

Most people are shifting in their seats, trying to translate the disjointed sentences and punctuation that was, if not absent, used in odd (wrong) ways. Surely the thing is derogatory. Or, maybe it isn’t?

But Long is trying to get us to look deeper– what is the *point* of the disjointed sentences used together? What emotions are evident in the poem? How many voices is the poem reflecting?

Silence.

So then he turns to that most powerful conveyor of meaning, metaphor:

“Think about Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.”

Long looks back out to the sea of blank faces – and maybe he saw mine in the midst of them, smiling under the light bulb that had been switched on above my head. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

In one instant, because of my awareness of that historic rock and roll moment, I could see that Cummings is satirizing false patriotism created by catchphrases and concepts, and I see him suggesting that his beloved country is less free because of those that blindly ascribe to those phrases and concepts while calling those that don’t, unpatriotic.

I wasn’t old enough to remember Woodstock directly, but I knew all about the event, I had seen the video and heard Hendrix’s controversial solo many times, and I knew he was playing to an audience that was critical of the Viet Nam war in particular, and questioning of the “establishment” in general, and were often called un-American for it. I had felt the emotion in that solo, and could tell that it reflected both love for his country, mourning for lives lost in war, and a critical disdain for an administration’s use of a bunch of symbols wrapped up in a national anthem to form such a narrow definition of loyalty and patriotism.

It was with mild amusement that I saw that none of the 19 year-olds in the room seemed to have any idea of what the professor was talking about. If they knew who Jimi Hendrix was, or if they’d heard of that solo, the connection sure wasn’t gelling.

For me though, that professor shed light – again – on my power as an adult learner, showing me how my own experiences and life-acquired knowledge framed my critical perspective, and could make new learning richer and more meaningful.

Oh, and there was that other little writing/art/life lesson too – the power of the metaphor. I must say, to this day that particular metaphor of a most beautiful guitar player reflecting the meaning in an e.e. cummings poem, is still my favourite. Let's call it beautiful thing number 36.

 

I'm finding beauty – are you?

on moments, learning and beautiful imperfections

Exploring a few more questions:

What is the simplest truth you can express in words?
All we have is now.

 

If you had to teach something, what would you teach?
I actually learned how to teach because there was an idea that so inspired me I had to teach it – that we all have stories to tell, and all those stories are important.

With the growth of mass media/communications in the last century came the subsequent explosion of targeted messaging, public relations, spin and the manipulation of information in general, and we seem to be subjected to versions of “reality” that are increasingly narrowed, ironically.  If we all told our own stories from the perspectives of our own personal windows on the world, we might use our own critical skills and reject certain “realities” being constructed by those with louder voices and taller platforms. 

So, I did it.  I learned how to teach so I could encourage people to tell their own stories. 

 

What is the most defining moment of your life thus far?
There are a few.  My interest in memoir and personal stories has caused me to examine these at length; for people who write in this vein, these moments – the points at which everything changes and nothing is ever the same again – are a goldmine to explore.  Here’s one I tell to most of my classes at some point in the semester:

I went to university when I was 30.  I was in the process of ending my marriage, and my girls were still really young.  All my life I’d been called an underachiever in school; that my output was not reflective of my abilities.  I just wasn’t that interested in some of the subjects, and my brain refused to process others – usually those involving numbers and equations.  Many years later I would learn about the concept of learning styles, and that the way curriculum was disseminated in the 60s and 70s didn’t much accommodate mine.  I’m not here to throw blame – I just didn’t bother corralling my mind and imagination within the walls of the classroom; I got by as a mediocre student, and that was good enough for me. 

It is with this background I find myself in an English class, a few weeks into my first semester of university.  I am in a class with a bunch of kids that got to university because they got good grades in high school.  I am there because as a “mature student” they had to let me in. 

So I’m sitting there in misery because we’re about to get back our first papers.  I submitted a critical analysis of a William Faulkner short story which I am sure is a piece of crap; I am certain Professor Long will call me aside after and ask me what in heaven’s name am I thinking in hanging about these halls that were built for academic types, not underachievers like me.

Before handing back the papers, Long begins to write a breakdown of the grades on the board; first he writes down the letters A through F and under each the number of students who got that grade.  I believe he is trying to illustrate that most everyone did badly, to ease the shock of those grades at the tops of those papers.  There is one A, a couple of B’s, several C’s, lots of D’s and one F – which I am convinced is mine.  In my head I’m making plans for quitting this nonsense and getting on with my life without a degree.  I’m not one of these people.

While I consider hightailing it out the door and avoiding the humiliation altogether, my paper is dropped in front of me and at the top of it is the A.  I’m in danger of hyperventilating, and I leave the room to collect myself in the hall while all the complaining smart kids are standing around Professor Long’s desk seeking some sort of explanation as to these foreign looking letters at the tops of their pages.

Ken Long would go on to shine light on more understandings that year, but this moment was the first time I understood that knowledge comes not only with study, but also with living.  That my own critical perspective has weight and value.  It was at that moment that the concept of lifelong learning, and idea that education could have something in it for me, revealed itself like the proverbial clap of thunder.  I left that room feeling considerably more valuable as a human than I did when I walked in.

Another ten years down the road I would go on to pursue another degree in adult education because I wanted to share this type of experience.  If I could make learning experiences a fraction as meaningful as Ken Long did for me, I will have made a difference in my little corner of the world.  And what more could one ask for?

Is there such a thing as perfect?
I like to think that it’s imperfections that make the world and its people interesting and beautiful.  In fact, I think “perfection” is a dangerous concept.  Who’s to say how perfect is defined?  By its implication, everything considered not perfect is somehow lesser than the thing labelled perfect by the person who has somehow acquired the right to name it so.  We’ve all got a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, understandings that would cause us to see a thing in a different way, and what if we don’t see it the same way as that person who labels a thing perfect?  Does that automatically render us imperfect?

It seems I’ve written myself into a theme here.  You know that “A” paper I wrote about above?  It was technically an A-.  Not perfect, and yet the most beautiful thing I had seen in a very long time.  Let’s call it beautiful thing number 35. 

 

I'm finding beauty, are you?