“All the acts of the drama of world history were performed before a chorus of the laughing people. Without hearing this chorus we cannot understand the drama as a whole.” -Bakhtin

It’s hard for me not to think synthetically about educating youth, studying language and literacy, living faithfully and ethically, and also attending to readings of contemporary consumer culture (popular culture, literature, music, books, and technologies.)  By thinking synthetically, I mean that they are categories but not categorical, because of the role that culture has in shaping young people, and old for that matter, because our symbolic interchanges are so thoroughly embedded in cultural signifiers, and because in this world of symbol, praxis, and story, we strive and fall and negotiate and pray as human beings.

The quote is from Rabelais and His World, part of the conclusion of Bakhtin’s extended reflection on the carnivalesque and grotesquery of the world captured in forms of storytelling, but certainly true to life itself in varied performances.  He reminds us that if a millennium from now, our Alien Robot overlords tried to decipher our present by studying Politico, the Dow Jones, and NSA Surveillance records, their understanding of the actual stuff of life would be misguided without bawdy Tweets and barroom banter, without Roseanne and Sanford, without reality TV and, well, Rabelais.

Not everything I write about will be mirthful indulgence bracketed off from stringent authoritarianism, but Bakhtin reminds us that human and democratic energies reside in the flea market and farmer’s market, the Saturday night fever and the Sunday night football.  Attending to these is not to escape the world, but to read the drama of the world.  I hope I learn to read it with wisdom and discernment.

“Anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy.” -Dewey

Having “boiled” down the purpose of this blog to four aspects of my identity and thought, I still feel the necessity of qualifying each of them still further.  I’m not sure which of the four is more presumptuous, but from one perspective, scholar takes the prize.  Yes, I own a lot of books, to the chagrin of my accountant and the delight of Jeff Bezos (haha–as if I had an accountant.)  But at present, I’m merely a lowly graduate student, a Ph.D not-yet-candidate.  Moreover, I’m in an applied and interdisciplinary field, Education, which by some lights at least is chronically under-theorized and -developed.  I beg to differ.  Being an educationalist means a necessary interdisciplinarity, as well as a necessary engagement with praxis and pragmatism, as well as a reflexivity about scholarship itself, that conditions us to a unique kind of epistemological rigor.
Dewey and this quotation headlines my contemplations about and as a “scholar” because, instead of entrenching more deeply in the institutional structures that ensure/enshrine safety for an academic, I hope that my scholarly work does not merely describe, but changes.  That presumptuous verb change lacks an object, and it is underspecified to suggest why “scholar” or even “scholar-activist” cannot stand alone as an identity.  When it comes to disciplines and discourses, personally, my ambition is to be a bridge-builder as a researcher, to exercise grace and civility in an often cold and contentious academic culture.  Yet, I would not sweat the tedium of academia if not infused with the belief that from one perspective, “we at war.”  Our science must be strong (even us interpretivist, phenomenological, qualitative types) because the stakes are so high for our product, for what we hustle and grind for.
To wit:
Dylan Thomas
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.
As a scholar, I hope I make the choice again and again, to choose life.  My meager contributions are the smallest drop in the largest bucket, but we had best mind the currents we flow in, because they shape canyons.

“The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.” -Bonhoeffer

Christian preaching is a matter of proclamation.  But all the accounts of proclamation in the Scriptures, Elijah before Ahab, Paul before the Sanhedrin, and for that matter, the sort of anti-proclamation of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate, never simply rest on the words alone.  The words magnify the actions, the moment, the confrontation of deceit, the surrender to truth, the relinquishment of self to the Power of God over the powers of the world, even while the powers of the world may have their way for the present.  The confession of the Gospel goes to the places, whether spatially, psychologically, or rhetorically, where sin and death and violence are seated, to declare a conquest of love, a triumph of humility, a reign of grace, in the Person and kingdom of Christ.

For a little more than a decade, I was a periodic preacher in my small church.  I am in the midst of an indefinite sabbatical, an extended break, which has been an opportunity to step back and take a deep breath and reassess the unfathomable prospect of trying to exposit the Word of God, or more accurately, try to clear away my dirt and displace my shadows enough to make way for the illumination of the Word of God to shine without my detractions.  The angle of repose this break has provided makes me think it incredulous in retrospect–what did I think I was doing up there, speaking for God?  A conscientious preacher must always be horrified by the hubris between the heights of the Message and the depths of we its conduits.

The most profound realization that leaving the pulpit has afforded me is that I was so concerned with my performance, in an entirely human sense, as a preacher that I completely missed the real stakes involved.  I mostly thought about how the sermon would be received, how effective the illustrations, whether anyone would laugh at the jokes, if I could move anyone enough with my pathos, my perspicacity, my persuasion, to keep coming back on Sundays, to participate in our activities, to buy the spiritual goods I was selling.  Like missing the banquet for the garnish.  In fact, what God was concerned with was the integrity of my life, and whether or not I was willing to go to the pained and broken places in the congregants’ lives, in our community, in society, and declare Gospel there, in word and deed.

Now I am wandering in the desert, but thankfully so.  Thankfully in search of what faithfulness and witness looks like when I cannot check “preaching” off my list via an occasional Sunday duty.  I don’t wish to be a comforting church show.  I hope God can use me as an instrument, cracked and out of tune, but reliably willing, in the temple courts, before the halls of power, on the dusty roads where the wounded lie, to proclaim the good news of God’s justice and love there.

“The teacher…is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.” -Freire

The language teacher, more than anyone, ought to understand that teaching for social justice does not mean only supplying students with the tools, the doctrines, and the canon that will grant them access to elite education, employment opportunity, and exit from their communities and oft-pathologized cultures.  This is because the language teacher leads students to examine an object–language– whose very lifeblood is the ingresses and egresses of populist energies, the dynamics and vicissitudes of changing standards and expectations, and the particular potency of symbolic subversion, even as language also simultaneously asserts stability, routinization, and rigidity.  Language is that most democratic of things, signifiers shifting all the time at the hands of creatively appropriating humans, and kids teach us language (even the stodgy teacher who scorns and mocks it cannot long sideline its intelligibility and therefore communicative effectiveness) all the time, and we cannot resist its powers.  Bakhtin said it best in a metaphor that has proven memorable and durable to me: there is a centrifugal and centripetal pull, simultaneously, with language, that makes it push outward towards diversity and what he called heteroglossia, and at the same time a centering pull toward unity, uniformity, and authority.  Both operate at all times in language.  We sense it in every novel we read, in the playfulness or ponderousness of poetry, in the ways we and students perform, try on/take off, and otherwise make a practice of language.

Therefore, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children granted, it is not enough to give students the tools of the culture of power.  We must also unmask the culture of power and give them the tools of its revision and subversion, particularly the symbolic tools, the ones that eventually lead to material consequences.  Yes, students must learn how to compose academic essays.  But they must also do so to craft deft arguments that challenge the notion that the non-essayist is blinder, stupider, less articulate.  And moreover, must illuminate for the rest of us darkened minds the greatness of those considered the least.

This is not a romanticization of the poor or “illiterate.”  This is a recognition that in our profoundly divided and hierarchical society, where wealth inequality continues its steep increase, as Freire reminds us, our humanization depends on the moral clarity and force of “students” to transform the voice of the “teachers,” the oppressed to teach oppressors, the poor to intercede for the rotten rich.  Or, put another way, those who teach in “underperforming” or “low” schools had better be prepared to learn a thing or two from their students, even while they responsibly teach them.  Together, we synthesize what’s new, what’s next, what’s tomorrow, whether we like it or not.  Understanding how that synthesis is configured is where our work is done.