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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


What If Nothing Matters?

Sometimes you have to let the despair in to find some hope on the other side.

January 20, 2022

Believe it or not, one of the things I miss most now that teaching is not the central organizing principle of my life is the experience of seeing tangible evidence of progress.

Don’t get me wrong, teaching can be difficult and frustrating—I’ve described it as an extended exercise in falling short of your own hopes and expectations—but teaching, particularly teaching writing, comes with some chances to experience a tangible victory or two or five during the semester.

There are always those moments where it’s clear that something locks into place for a student, and the learning is evident. Not to be all squishy and sentimental, but it’s hard to beat the feeling that you might’ve made this kind of difference in a student’s life. It’s personal, it’s immediate and it’s real.

How many jobs are able to deliver that kind of experience on a regular basis?

Writing does not offer nearly the same pleasures. For the most part, even if you publish regularly, your work drops into a void with little response and less actual impact. If you’re like me and do foolish things like try to involve yourself in big debates like overhauling our entire system of postsecondary education, you better be prepared to embrace the reality that no one is paying any attention to you.

As a writer, there are some certain benchmarks, like selling a book or having the launch of your Substack as a paying entity, go better than you hoped (as just happened for me), but these sorts of markers of success do not offer that same sense of accomplishment as those moments when you know students have connected to what you’re teaching.

I wonder if this sense of connection has been most missed during this pandemic period.

There has been the physical distancing, of course, but I believe many have become alienated in deeper ways because of institutional failures to protect their safety and well-being. Some of this is a leadership issue—I highly recommend Kevin R. McClure’s writing on this if you’re not following it already—but I also don’t think we can lay the blame entirely on poor leadership.

In a recent essay, McClure and co-author Alisa Hicklin Fryar call the present phenomenon “the great faculty disengagement,” which sounds about right to me. They report that faculty are still dedicated to their core work of working with students and other enumerated job tasks, but they feel less motivated to go above and beyond the immediate call of duty. After years of institutional exploitation, lots of folks have simply had enough.

Caring less is a matter of self-preservation.

It seems like I’m not the only one who sits back and asks if anything they’re doing really matters.

I feel as though many of us may have lost connection to a narrative of (at least theoretically possible) progress that we attach to education. Our institutions seem designed to use up the “human capital” in order to perpetuate their own existences, rather than being organized around the intellectual, social and economic development of people who intersect with the institution.

We know that education is not and never was “the great equalizer.” That’s not new, but maybe more folks are recognizing it lately.

We should be able to recognize by now that our system as constructed primarily reifies existing privilege, funneling a disproportionate share of resources to the already well stocked.

It is simply demoralizing to know that significant change is necessary, and to see so little impetus among those with the most power to effect change, to do anything truly substantive.

Where are individuals to go for inspiration?

Perhaps from Samuel Beckett’s famous passage from The Unnamable, a novel in part about the unreliability of narratives: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” What is there to do but to continue to lurch forward, hoping that something changes or that a new narrative emerges?

Or maybe from the final scene in Dr. Strangelove as Slim Pickens hoots and hollers as he rides an atom bomb to the ground, knowing he and the world are ending, but whooping it up for however long he has left.

As isolating as writing can be, at least it offers the solace of grappling with my thoughts and feelings, as evidenced here.

No, I can’t make sense of things at the moment, but the attempt to do so is at least worth something.


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