Making Contact, Learning to Hear Angry Words

In Habits of the Creative Mind, Richard Miller and Ann Jurecic explain that when we think about the power of language, most of us think about communication — the ability to take action in the world by exchanging words in oral or written form. This is a pretty practical way of thinking about language. Language does work for us and enables us to do work. Like commanding someone, building or ending a relationship with someone, teaching someone. I like the way Miller and Jurecic put it, though: “Words allow us … to make contact with the world and with each other” (133). That sounds practical, for sure. But it also sounds pretty miraculous, creative even.

Miller and Jurecic point to this miraculous capacity of language with their examples from Genesis (133). Adam names the elements of God’s creation, and in so doing, makes them conceivable, literally, thinkable. Without language, how could Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and humanity learn how to cultivate the earth and husband the animals, and to convey that knowledge through the generations? Miller and Jurecic want emerging writers to embrace the idea that writing is essentially generative, which when I think about it, means something like procreative. Language enables us to create ideas, to explore our world and ourselves beyond what we already know. To produce something new in the world that will outlast us, or at least, have some autonomy.

Reading about Helen Keller, who couldn’t see, hear, or speak, makes me wonder about what it would be like to be unable to use language to make sense of the world. Pretty scary I think. I mean, language is a storehouse of the wisdom of the past. In giving us words like “slimy,” our ancestors teach us to be wary of certain animals or spoiled food, and then I can apply what I’ve learned to unscrupulous people who are likely to take advantage of me. Without language, I’d have to experience everything as if for the first time, and rely on my own resources to get by.

While I can’t experience the world the way Helen Keller did, I can remember times when I was utterly inarticulate, unable to make myself understood. I remember sitting in a graduate school seminar at the University of Minnesota back in the early 1990s. The course was meant to prepare us to teach American Studies at the college level. Each week, one or more of us was responsible for presenting a lesson we had designed and getting feedback from our peers. When it was my turn to present, I explained a lesson plan centered around films that mythologized historical events. At the heart of my unit was a discussion of westerns starring John Wayne, including Stagecoach, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In my unit, I proposed to focus on teaching students how to see the technical elements of film and to inquire into how the films built up a mythology about the west that celebrated masculinity and the autonomy of men gained through violence. I wanted students to be able to explain why films like these became so popular in the 1940s, just when American men were being asked to give up considerable autonomy and work in big corporations, where they would have to take orders from other men and swallow their anger (and put down their fists) if they wanted to earn a stable paycheck.

I thought I had a pretty good lesson. When I finished, I sat back and waited for the admiration of my peers. I got some of that. But a few minutes into the discussion, one student, I’ll call her Maya, who was a student in both the American Studies and American Indian Studies programs pointed out that my lesson plan repeated the historic erasure of Native Americans from West. She said that I had enacted a symbolic genocide, by placing all of the emphasis on the John Wayne characters. She explained that this lesson had nothing to say about how the myth of the West basically functioned to make a history of genocide seem natural and inevitable.

You can imagine how I felt listening to Maya. I thought of myself as a good liberal, a student of history, and generally a person sensitive to the way racial violence has shaped American history. So, I was angry, ashamed, and defensive. I tried to explain myself, and defend myself, but struggled to find the language to answer her criticism. Instead of listening, thinking, and responding, I spoke to protect myself and maintain my sense of myself. “Does every lesson in a class like this have to focus on the sins of white people?” I asked.

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Me, as a young man, far too sure of myself

Maya got angry and, in sharp phrases, explained that until European-Americans showed signs of replacing the Western mythology with a view of American history that incorporated the perspectives of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and all the other peoples, whose experience of America hadn’t been as empowering, who had been targeted by violence, and who continued to live in the legacies of colonialism, then, yes, every lesson about the West needed to focus on the sins of white people.

That day didn’t go well for me. I had a lot to learn that I was unwilling to learn that day. I didn’t have the language available to me to interrogate my own thinking and arrive at a new understanding. When I think back on it, I now recognize the incredible favor Maya did for me, asking me to think about the larger implications of the choices I had made designing my lessons. But then I was too young, too arrogant, and too secure in my sense that I understood the world to accept her gift. I think if I tried to reach out to her now, Maya might not remember me. After all, I was just one more myopic white guy in need of schooling. But I hope that my choices since then reflect what she taught me.

I got tired of watching 25% of college students fail in their first year. So I decided to do something about it.

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