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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


A good omen

That's right, I believe in signs. I'm speaking in the written sense, mostly: Whether they're manifested messages from some divine authority or inidicators of universal synchronicity a la Jung or just psychological revelations based on a personal symbology, I enjoy finding coincidental meaning in seemingly mundane events.

In my novel, the narrator spends much of her spiritual journey rambling around the afterlife in a beat-up white Dodge Ram touring van. It's how she begins her journey immediately after death, and while she abandons the van in a fit of independence, it makes its way back into her journey through "coincidence" and becomes the literal vehicle for her descent into a nightmarish "hell" and evetually is the scene of her rape. When she kills her rapist and wanders into a desert alone, she finds the abandoned van broken and stripped, and she leaves it where it is to rot in the desert, so ultimately, it comes to represent her soul.

This morning, when I walked outside my motel to look at the dreary rain here in North Texas, I found a beat-up white Dodge Ram touring van parked in the parking lot. Scrawled with a fingertip on its rear windows was the message, "Hi, Elijah!"

I couldn't have written a more convenient spiritual metaphor, and I'm hoping it serves as a sign that the universe is conspiring in favor of my defense.


My new grading policy

This was my "Buddhism quote" on my iGoogle homepage today:

"Wise men don't judge: they seek to understand."

Pretty much sums up the ways I grade and the reasons I don't like assigning grades. As a writer who insists on treating students like fellow writers, I don't want to "judge" their work--I want to understand it.



My sister has this life-long friend who grew up on a farm. Raised cows, learned to drive a tractor at age 6, showed pigs at the county fair--the whole bit. She once described to us the process of delivering piglets, an ordeal my sister got to participate in. Third-grade arms deep inside the pig, little fetuses squirming to get out, blood and muck everywhere. When I saw Billy Crystal deliver a calf in City Slickers, I had some idea what it must have smelled like, thanks to my sister's friend.

Birthing Revising my novel feels a little bit similar. I'm up to my elbows in the gory mess of my own words, and just when I think I've got hold of something, the walls constrict, grip my arm so I can't move, and whatever I thought I had slips loose.

And everything stinks.




I've been contemplating my role in the classroom, and I decided--not as definition but as meditation--to explore the origins of all these labels we apply to ourselves. While I acknowledge that most of these etymologies have evolved to have entirely different connotations, I enjoy examining the beginnings of words as a way of unlocking or re-examining how we use them today. Some of these terms are more common than others (I, for instance, am a "lecturer," but I am no longer a "tutor" in the conventional sense), but I'm including anything I can think of related to my role in education so as to better consider what exactly I'm doing. I've arranged them in three sections of "non-Sams," "middlings," and "Sams," according to how I feel the etymologies reflect my views of education, but I don't want to insist that my views are "correct" in any way--there are plenty of teachers whose preferred teaching styles fall into what I'm calling the "non-Sams"; I value their teaching and I'm glad there are different teaching styles to choose from.

  • Educator: From a Latin root for “to rear up” or “raise”; also related to a Latin word for “to lead.” To educate, then, is to raise up a younger student to a knowledgeable adult; also, it suggests that such knowledgeable adulthood is out there, somewhere, and the educator must “lead” the student to it.
  • Guru: Sanskrit for “weighty, grave, dignified.” While I revere gurus in general and while, if I had any formal gurus, I would revere them specifically, I have to include this in the non-Sams because it is the stereotype of the haughty professor who reviles students as pesky novices and who considers him- or herself as the all-knowing font of wisdom to which students must grovel for information.


  • Instructor: From a Latin root meaning “to build, erect, or prepare.” To instruct someone is prepare someone for a life (see “educate”), but the structural uses of the root also suggest that there is in the student an innate foundation on which to “erect” the knowledgeable adult.
  • Lecturer: From a Latin root for “to read.” In essence, to lecture is read to our students, but there does not seem to be anything inherently instructive or interpretive about the act. We would simply be presenting information for the student to hear.
  • Tutor: From a Latin root for “to guard or watch”; a tutor, then, guards a student's education. I like the protective aspects of this, as though we sincerely have our students’ best interests at heart, but I cringe at the implication that we are guarding not the student but the curriculum—that we are protecting the student against going down the “wrong” path in their education. Even this has its advantages, of course, because in protecting students against their own follies we are helping them effectively navigate their education, but I still worry about the judgmental aspect of “guardianship.”
  • Edifier: From Latin roots that, combined, mean “to make a dwelling.” To edify, then, is to build a house of knowledge, a kind of mental safe haven (see “tutor”). This is related to “instruct,” but by specifying the home as that which is being built, there is a simpler, less elite, and perhaps less imposing connotation here. If it were clearly collaborative, I’d list “edify” below in the “Sams”; since it is unclear who is doing the building, I’ll leave it here.
  • Faculty: From the Latin for “power, ability, opportunity” (see “guru”) and for “resources, wealth”; related to the latter definitions, it is also a form of the Latin for “easily” (see “school”). Much as I enjoy the adage that “knowledge is power,” I abhor the lordly suggestion those with knowledge should enjoy a power over others or over knowledge itself. I also dislike the reference to education’s early (or, okay, continuing) socio-economic elitism. But those are the only reasons this word rests here in the middle. I also like the acknowledgment of accomplishment and opportunity available in education, and I prefer to interpret “easily” as “in one’s own fashion” or “without undo outside pressure to conform.” It’s a loose interpretation, but I’m sticking to it.

  • Teacher: From an old Teutonic root for “token,” meaning something shown; as a verb, it connotes showing or giving, but it is also linked to a conjugation akin to “taken,” as in something received. To teach, then, is both to give and to receive knowledge.
  • Professor: From Latin roots meaning “to put forth” and “to declare”; in this sense, to profess is to make a declaration, as though of the truth. However, in its early religious usages, it meant “to make a public confession,” a connotation I prefer, as it suggests I am admitting to my intellectual biases as well as stating my views.
  • School (the verb, as in "I schooled you"; archaic, but interesting, though I have resisted using the nominative "schooler"): In a very roundabout path through Latin, German, and various Scandinavian languages, from a Greek root meaning “leisure”; as a verb, then, it suggests taking one’s leisure through study, or to have enough leisure time to engage in study. Much as this might support the long-standing elitism of education (only those rich or powerful enough have time and means for study), I enjoy the verb origins of this as an excuse to give my students leisure enough to study in their own way or to explore their own ideas, and to let them enjoy their studies.
  • Mentor: The proper name of a Greek poet; etymologically, it contains references to words for “advise,” “counsel,” “remember,” and “think.” As a “guide” through my students’ education, I prefer this word above all but the next one.
  • Student: From the Latin for “zeal and affection” and the verb connotations of “to be zealous,” “to seek to be helpful,” and “to apply oneself.” I wish my students were in fact more zealous in the pursuit of their education, but I include this here because I consider my role as a student as essential to—perhaps indistinct from—my role as a teacher, and I adore that part of this definition that encourages us to “seek to be helpful.”