Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.

Fall Backglance

I turned in grades almost ten days ago. And ten days has left me enough time to defrag what was the Fall 2011 semester (also enough time to see The Muppets, watch Breaking Bad through season 3, and finish Shields’ Vonnegut biography, And So It Goes). The highlights follow, in no particular order.

  • I taught three classes, 50+ students altogether: a new (for me) grad class, ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology, and two sections of ENGL328: Writing, Style, and Technology. 505 went well for the most part; I’ll probably return to Metaphors We Live By and Science in Action when I teach it again in Fall 2012. But I’ll replace The Social Life of Information with Kuhn, Polanyi (lectures), or Darwin. Or Mol, if I can ever get around to reading Body Multiple. Maybe add some of the “rhetoric as epistemic” conversation.
  • The two sections of ENGL328 ran back to back on Mondays and Wednesdays. One section was in a preferable lab; the other section was in one of the worst teaching labs I’ve ever set foot in. A horrible space. And this was an improvement–an upgrade–from the space into which it was originally scheduled. Consequently I had more conversations than I can count with IT folks about why certain lab configurations work differently than others for teaching. This was one of the most nagging and unavoidable frustrations of the semester.
  • These two classes were as night and day as any two I can remember teaching. Same projects. Same readings. But drastically different personalities.
  • My teaching was observed three times in the second week of the semester, and the timing, while somewhat less than ideal in my opinion, had everything to do with the October 15 deadline for my third-year review materials. Why less than ideal? Well, it’s plain to me that my classes are stronger, move lively, and more representative as a scene of teaching and learning in the last one-third of the semester than in the first two weeks. Semesters follow arcs; relationships develop. The observations were overall fairly favorable nevertheless.
  • Other than teaching, the first half of the semester was consumed with preparing the third-year review binders (which went in without incident and, by all appearances have been well received at the various stop-offs they’ve reached thus far) and planning and organizing the WIDE-EMU Conference.
  • The conference went well, especially considering it was an experiment in conference-hosting with no costs to anyone, but had I to do it over again, I don’t think I’d both plan a conference and give a talk at that conference–on the same day third-year review materials are due. Too much. Everything went fine, but it left me sapped for the second half of the semester.
  • In the second half of the semester, I gave a “Tech Talk” to our Art Department on “A Quick Rhetoric of QR Codes.” Basically it was 30 minutes of examples, how-to, and a plea for more discriminating uses. I also carried a digital-installation-qua-“poster” into the HASTAC Conference in Ann Arbor in early December.
  • I attended commencement, heard George Gervin’s address and saw a half dozen students I’d had in class recently accept their diplomas.
  • I helped the Honors College revamp its Presidential Scholars essay prompts and assessment tool (as a member of the HC Advisory Council). I also interviewed Presidential Scholar candidates in early December.
  • I touched up the Masters Degree Consortium site, added a map, and more importantly, collaborated on a survey and all of the required IRB solicitations so we can proceed with circulating the survey in early-mid January.
  • We released two issues of EM-Journal, one on the first day of the semester, and the second on December 1 at the Celebration of Student Writing.
  • At our symposium on pursuing graduate education in written communication, I gave a short spiel titled, “Graduate School in Ten Understatements.” Tricky to offer one-size-fits-most advice that avoids 1) being discouraging and 2) meaningless platitudes.
  • Nudged along a proposal for an online version of ENGL326 I’ll likely teach in the spring term. I think it’s finally, officially approved, and I spent a couple of hours this morning on the course materials.
  • And then there were a small handful of proposals and ms. submissions at various stages that crossed my desk, that waggled through my in and outbox–one ms. revised and accepted, another conditionally accepted, and two different chapter proposals (one accepted; the other in the eds.’ hands).
  • For the first time in a long time, I didn’t submit any proposals for a spring conference. No C&W. No RSA. And that’s in small part because travel funds will have long since dried up by then, I have a busy CCCC docket in March, and I’m usually too fatigued by May to feel all Let’s Go! about academic conferences. Might keep an eye out for the WPA Albuquerque CFP though. Or, if there’s a Great Lakes THATCamp this spring, might check it out.

Suspense

My two Twitter accounts unexpectedly synchronized yesterday, matching in number for the first time ever. Two-hundred forty-three tweets in each. #sotta

Right-o: #sotta is a hashtag for State of the Twitter Accounts. Of course, I realize that hashtags don’t help organize blog entries the way they do Twitter updates. So much runs together nowadays.

Their unplanned alignment, though not especially remarkable for everyday people (even Digg overlooked this happening), was just uncanny enough for me to justify taking a step back, a deep breathe and reflective, 24-hour pause. Could be a conductive, insightful occasion, or not. The two accounts resemble fraternal twins. One came first. They have much in common, but they do not quite look alike: different avatars, different personalities, different aliases, different habits of writing and linking.

I keep the older account around because it follows and is in turn followed by a somewhat more collegial and professorial company than the other. The second account is more teacherly; it fills a pedagogical need for the activity streams ENGL328ers write throughout the semester. In other words, the second account is more for orchestration and course-specific guidance.

Two-hundred forty-three tweets: that’s nothing. Even multiplied by two, it’s in the shallow end of the pool some measure away from Twitter users who have upwards of two thousand entries. So in this, my first half-year of tweeting, I’m still trying to figure out where my own writing and working rhythms blend in with the Twittersphere, whether I’m being (perhaps somewhat willfully) negligent of the accumulative effects of writing not only in a networked platform but in a networked platform with such a boundless temporality as this.