[By Noah Yasskin]
A knowledgeable Guide leads a few people gathered around a table in a substantive discussion about a worthwhile book. This is how Delve Readers Seminars at the nonprofit Literary Arts are set up. It is education by conversation.
I recently participated in a seminar that was designed to complement Wordstock: Portland’s Book Festival, a one-day event at the Portland Art Museum on November 7, 2015. The event is being relaunched by Literary Arts. It builds community around literature through pop-up readings, writing workshops, a book fair, and other opportunities for discussion.
We read two books by authors appearing at the festival: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida and The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. Lidia Yuknavitch is talking about her writing community on OPB’s State of Wonder panel. Vendela Vida is participating in a panel called “Lost & Found: Fiction on the Threshold,” about novels where the main character is searching for a mythical object or for themselves.
For the seminar, I went in person to the Literary Arts center at 925 SW Washington St., a sleek office building in the heart of downtown, facing the block of the Alder Street Food Cart Pod. Literary Arts occupies three large rooms visible to pedestrians. The room in the middle is filled with cubicles for the organization’s staff. Two rooms are simply adorned with conference tables and chairs; the West room has a visually pleasing wall lined by books.
I was greeted by a representative from Literary Arts and led to the East seminar room, where I met the Guide, Sarah Guest. She is an editor, poet and experienced leader of Delve Seminars. A name card was waiting on the table for each participant. People pulled out their books and put away their laptops and cell phones. For two hours, five living beings had a face-to-face conversation.
The simple lesson I learned at Literary Arts was that a great educational experience can be had with only four elements: a good text, a good guide, a technology-free space for face-to-face conversation, and people prepared and willing to enter into a meaningful live dialogue.
The text is critical. Yes, I know that Socrates taught the youth of Athens without books and never wrote anything; but for everyone else, a compelling text is helpful to think with. The book, though, cannot be a textbook, where knowledge is presented as settled fact. Like the novels by Vida and Yuknavitch that we read, it must make demands upon the reader and lead to open-ended questions.
The Guide is also critical. Without an expert Guide our seminar would have been too much like a book club, veering off topic and degenerating into commonplace socializing. Our Guide Sara Guest brought our conversation back to the novels, drew out responses from reluctant participants and helped us make important connections. Where we got stuck, she found a way forward.
A large table and a few chairs was enough equipment for our discussion— in the past we didn’t need complicated technology, and we don’t need it now. Adding technology would have only interrupted the give-and-take of our face-to-face conversation. Literary Arts follows Goethe’s advice, “learn to believe in simplicity.”
Like Plato’s Academy, the cornerstone of seminar pedagogy is living contact between human beings. Being there in person—not virtually—improved the conversation. The unplugged participants were present and engaged. People staring into screens are not engaged in an authentic dialogue.
Education by conversation is not just low tech, it’s an effective counterbalance to the negative effects of high tech. We need to practice sustained conversation to retain the traditional skills threatened by our technological culture of distracted attention. For two-hours we discussed the themes, characters, narrative strategies developed by Yuknavitch and Vida and much more. The exercise forced me to practice the disappearing arts of reading, listening, and thinking.
Anticipating that I would be expected to intelligently discuss The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Small Backs of Children encouraged me to read both books more intentionally and deeply. I marked up the margins and took some notes on themes or passages I wanted to discuss. It’s different than the distracted reading I do online, where I skim and scan.
To participate effectively in the discussion, I had to practice the art of listening. Not wanting to interrupt, I listened for the right moment to add to the conversation. As I overheard myself trying to contribute my thoughts, I expected reactions, discussion, judgment, and criticism from the other participants. If my contribution killed the conversation—which it did more than once—I had to reevaluate what I had said and listen more attentively for the conversation’s animating ideas.
Participating in dialogue is practice in the art of thinking. Plato conceived of thought itself as dialogue, and said “Thought and discourse are the same thing, except that it is the soul’s silent, inner dialogue with itself which we have called thought.” (Sophist 263e4)
Our conversation required me to draw my own conclusions and organize my own ideas. I couldn’t Google the answers. Whether or not I thought Vida’s very unusual use of the second person to narrate her book made me identify with the narrator is not mere information. It’s a question that emerged through conversation and fostered playful thinking.
I had to work out my own ideas and, in the process, I discovered something about myself. What I learned was that the second person strategy didn’t work as well for me as for the other participants, because I think novels work best when they lead us to a more universal understanding. Effective novels rise above the limited perspective of an individual character, and thereby help us rise above our own partial viewpoints. Without this conversation, I may have never have formed and owned that judgment.
My seminar discussion at Literary Arts convinced me more than ever that conversation should be placed at the center of the educational enterprise. Only dialogue allows the irreplaceable aspects of teaching to shine.
In an attempt to make teaching more standardized and efficient, education managers have invested heavily in technology. This means more calculative testing and replacing live teachers with online videos. Technological education is heading in the wrong direction. Computers can calculate data, search for information, and administer standardized tests, but they cannot teach the student. They can get us from data to information, but not from information to knowledge, and they have nothing to say about wisdom. We should automate educational administrators, not teachers.
Like a good professor in a graduate school seminar, the Guide in a discussion seminar does something essential that the advocates of efficiency have missed. In conversation, teachers adjust the conversation to best suit the individual student. Our Guide, Sara Guest, addressed her dialogue to me at a level that corresponded to my needs and possibilities. Where I only noticed that identity was fluid in Vida’s novel, she led me to the see that by letting go of her fixed identity, the main character became happier and more liberated. She provided the same kind of custom-tailored guidance for every participant. Not even IBM Watson can replicate this kind of personalized real-time teaching.
Teachers are often recognized as mentors, but they are rarely seen as living exemplars.
Our teacher was an exemplary conversationalist. Guest was the best reader, made the most insightful contributions, and had the most balanced comments. The seminar was full of smart people, but in discussion we revealed ourselves to others (and to ourselves) as novice readers. As she corrected course after an unbalanced contribution to the discussion, I came to think, “If I follow her example, I too may eventually be able to read and speak so well.”
Our Guide demonstrated through her living example how we could become better readers of literature. Like a good literary critic, Guest helped guide our attention toward what is genuinely satisfying and pleasing about the books we read. While I was disappointed by the rock-star behavior of Yuknavitch’s artist characters, she pointed out that the writing was worthy of admiration and emulation.
Guest was also an exemplary critic. Expressing whether or not one likes a work of art isn’t the real business of the critic. It’s easy to criticize, and I did too much of that, especially when we discussed The Small Backs of Children, a book that I didn’t particularly like. Guest helped me see that the strength of my negative reaction to Yuknavitch may only be proof of the strength of her art. Disturbed by the heroin-riddled prostitutes and poet orgy scene? It’s evidence that the author effectively used her art as activism. Whether or not I liked it was beside the point.
I came away from the Literary Arts seminar convinced that we should value the living above the written word. Texts should lead to conversations—not the other way around.
Our exercise in dialogue was more important than any results obtained from the exercise. For Plato, the theories presented in his written work were not the end goal, but a second best. His written dialogues were for people unable to directly participate in discussions at the Academy.
Of course, we still must read and write alone. But dialogue between living people has always been more edifying than solitary reading. As the Roman Stoic Seneca put it, “The living word and life in common will benefit you more than written discourse” (Moral Epistles 6,6). A library card is not enough. Education also requires dialogue.
Reorienting education toward conversation would be effective rather than efficient. Discussing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Small Backs of Children with Guest and the other participants in the seminar at Literary Arts was one of my best educational experiences because it was the simplest: a few people face-to-face around a table in a guided discussion about great books.
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