Sunday, July 31, 2011

Nature and Nurture Versus Changing Ourselves

As sometimes happens on 'teh internets', a ghost from childhood contacted me the other day. A surprising one. A couple of years older than I, he had never particularly liked having me tag along. Ridiculously anxious to please him, I imitated as much about him as I could—and listened to his lies, never objecting, even when I knew they were lies.

Which was often.

I didn't know how to react, at that age, when my hero lied to me, so did nothing more than smile and nod. There was the constant bragging, the recounting of exploits. A few may even have been true. But I knew, on some level, that many had never happened—yet I listened with a kind of awe.

When he disappeared from my life, I think I was a little relieved. Certainly, I made no attempt to keep in touch with him.

After the first email from him last week, I did a little searching. I quickly discovered that he was not like most of the old friends and acquaintances that the Web drops on one unexpectedly.

A few years ago, he'd been arrested for fraud, pleaded guilty, and served time.

When I asked about it, he emailed back:

Don't believe what you read. 1st they report I was sentenced to 16 months . Not true.  I only did 8 months at club fed.  They said it was a 30 million dollar thing but it was 60 the hedge fund did not want the truth out so they lied. I only had to pay $300,000.  I made over 5 million .   You do the math.

Completely flummoxed (just as I'd often been as a kid), unable to respond with any true feelings, I sent back this:

I'm not one to pass judgment, for I know nothing about it.  But I am glad it is over for you.  I hope things are going a lot more smoothly.

Frankly, I also hope I don't hear from him again.  I was relieved to lose him once before; I will be relieved again, today.

Why, you may ask, did his email bother me so much?  Good question.

It's not that he's been to prison. Lots of people have. It's that he doesn't seem to have changed, to have grown up at all. He's still manipulating truth, playing with people's attitudes today just as he did oh, so many years ago.

“Don't believe what you read.” We've come to distrust the press, and it is easy to use that to cloud discussion of events reported—it's something that a good liar makes use of. I don't believe everything I read in the paper, but I don't disbelieve it all, either. In this case, I suspect he was sentenced to 16 months, serving eight. Notice that he changes “sentenced” to “did”.... The two, of course, are not the same thing. This is the type of switch a good prevaricator makes use of.  Maybe, because of the past, my antennae are particularly attuned to the possibility of lies from him... but I don't think that's all of it.

Furthermore, the articles I read said nothing about the size of any hedge fund. The only reason I can think he mentioned it is to inflate his own importance and to deflate the perception of damage done (five million is a much smaller percentage of sixty than thirty).

The kicker is that bragging, the clear feeling that five million is worth a six-percent fine and a little more than half a year in a federal prison. And the feeling that he “made” the money he gained illegally but did not have to return. He “made” nothing, of course, but simply gained.  That's not something anyone should be proud of.

This is the boy I knew talking, not someone who has grown into a responsible adult. “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” and all the similar attitudes, is not something that a mature, responsible adult believes.

This exchange has made me wonder, though not for the first time, whether or not any of us really ever matures—myself included. Are we all just larger versions of what we were when we were children? I like to think that I've changed a great deal over the years—and have every reason to hope that's true (there's much about my younger selves that I am not proud of, not at all). A study of children's willpower concerning cookies shows a correlation to later success, however, indicating that we are controlled, at least to some extent, by what we were early in life.

The idea that all we are is determined, to a large extent, by genetics and by early experience depresses me greatly. My teaching, trying to awaken young adults to learning and new possibilities in their own lives, depends on belief in the idea that people can change and grow.

My faith in the possibility of change has been shaken recently. Not just by this small email exchange, but by a number of other things I have seen, and by things I have read (including the study referenced above). Yet I also see, almost every semester, students who seem to be taking control away from background and environment, re-shaping themselves in unexpected (and often positive) fashions.

I don't want to believe stupidly, holding onto my faith simply because accepting the opposite would make many of my professional activities meaningless. So I have to look seriously at signs that I could be wrong. The email exchange with this childhood ghost certainly is one of these.

Let's hope my students this semester provide a counter-balance.

 I expect they will.

Which is why I continue teaching.

Monday, July 25, 2011

False Equivalency and Anders Breivik

"Well, he did the same thing!"

We've all heard that.  And we are all getting rather sick of seeing it, again and again, in our political discourse.

At least, I am.

Writing in today's New York Times, Ross Douthat tries to blunt criticism of the Norway Madman's connection to American right-wing crazies.  The Times, in another story, says Breivik was "deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam."  Douthat seems to believe that pointing this out is the equivalent of finding similarities in things the Unabomber wrote with Al Gore's Earth in the Balance.

What Douthat conveniently forgets is that there is no sign that Theodore Kazcynski was ever influenced by Al Gore. The same is not true of Breivik and right-wing bloggers.

To further try to blunt criticism of the right, Douthat attacks Bill Clinton's response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  He claims that Clinton "successfully linked the heartland terrorist to talk radio and the government shutdown" though, he claims, "McVeigh’s connections to Republican politics were several degrees short of tangential."  With his own slight of hand, Douthat slips from right-wing rabble-rousing to Republican politics--but no matter.  His point is that the left makes connections between right-wing terrorism and conservative talk with no more validity than the connection between Al Gore and Ted Kazcynski.

At his core, what Douthat is claiming is that the impact of words has nothing to do with belief.  He writes that the Norway atrocity "
doesn’t mean that conservatives need to surrender their convictions. The horror in Norway no more discredits Merkel's views on Muslim assimilation than Ted Kaczynski’s bombs discredited Al Gore’s views on the dark side of industrialization."

But the two are not equivalent.  Again, Douthat ignores the sequence.  Gore's words could never have had an impact on the Unabomber.  Merkel's certainly could have, on Breivit.

Furthermore, even if Kaczynski is included, violence from the left has never been anything on the scale of what we have seen from the right over the past twenty or thirty years (violence from radical Islam, though conservatives have tried to tie it to the left, has no relation to the political left of America or Europe).  And I know very few (I can't think of any) on the left who have made excuses for any political attacks--certainly, I have never seen any say, well, they do it, too.

The left-wing violence of the sixties made me sit down and think quite seriously about what we radicals were saying.  Was there an implied call to violence in our rhetoric?  It was a serious question that I, like many others, addressed head on.  It wasn't a question of "surrendering convictions" but of our methods.  One of the reasons there is comparatively little violence from the left now, I believe, is that we progressives never tried to blame the violence on others or excuse it.  We accepted that we might be, to some degree, responsible and altered our rhetoric accordingly.

Rather than making excuses or distancing themselves from the stream of right-wing violence, conservatives might want to consider doing the same today.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Assumption, Culture, and Resources

When I talk about language in my classes, and I usually do (after all, I'm an English professor), I generally manage to include a comment or two about the use of different language in different situations, sometimes called 'code switching' (though that's an inaccurate, or loose, use of the term).  One generally does not speak to one's parents, for example, in the same way one speaks to one's friends.  One does not write a paper using the same style as one does when texting a friend.

The discussion often moves into questions of dialect and culture, especially at City Tech, where my students have a great deal of experience with different sorts of English and with cultures other than their own.  After all, as the college website says, City Tech has faculty and students coming "from more than 120 countries and speaking more than 85 languages."  About half of our students have at least some African ancestry, many of those identifying as African-American or as Caribbean-American.  Not surprisingly, we end up talking about just what makes for a different culture... is it language, is it religion, is it skin color?

To illustrate that there's no easy answer to questions of cultural (and even racial) definition, I tell my students about Johnny Otis.  I had first become aware of him through his son Shuggie, who played on a couple of albums I had in college, particularly Al Kooper's Kooper Session and Frank Zappa's Hot Rats, one of my particular favorites.  The senior Otis, I discovered, had led his own bands and had been instrumental in helping the careers of a number of my favorite musicians from the fifties, including The Robins, the band that led to The Coasters.  His biggest hit had been "Willie and the Hand Jive," which would be covered successfully a couple of years after my college time by Eric Clapton.

What surprised me most about Otis was discovery that he was not African-American.  Or, at least, that he did not look black.  That his son could be the product of an interracial marriage didn't seem noteworthy, but that a band-leader so closely associated with black rhythm-and-blues had no African ancestry certainly did.

Somehow, I did learn something about Otis's background, that his parents were immigrants from Greece, his father a grocer, who had moved to a black neighborhood.  Growing up among African-Americans, Otis identified with them and their culture, and chose to stay within it once he had left home.

At least once a semester, over the past five years, I have told his story to my students as a prelude to the question: Is Otis black or white?  The discussions about assumptions concerning race, culture, and even dialect have been most satisfying and, I hope, eye-opening for my students.

Last week, on TCM, a movie called Juke Box Rhythm was shown.  I watched with a bit of trepidation for, according to the credits, it included a performance by Johnny Otis.

I realized, as I watched, that I had never really checked the story I had been telling my students about Otis, that I was making assumptions instead of checking my facts--something I should not be doing, certainly not these days, when the internet makes it so easy to establish the veracity of many of the stories we tell.  I was doing exactly what I warned my students away from, semester after semester.

It turned out that Otis is exactly what I had thought him to be, much to my relief as I watched him perform "Willie and the Hand Jive" in the movie.  I later looked him up on Wikipedia, where there is even a mention (with references--something I ask my students to check) of his deliberate choice to identify with the black community.

Yes, I was lucky.  Memory is untrustworthy and, though I know that, I hadn't bothered to act on that knowledge and check that what I thought I'd learned was accurate.  I had acted as a poor scholar and researcher in this digital age, when information is available so easily.  Had it proven that I was wrong about Otis, I would have been embarrassed, though I don't think I would have hurt my students' education (the point is still worth discussing).

What was it Ronald Reagan said?  "Trust, but verify?"  A quick check on Wikipedia just to make sure shows that it is older and Russian, and that even Lenin had liked the phrase.  Though I am a fan of neither Reagan nor Lenin, I am a fan of the aphorism.

And I had flattered myself that, in my research, at least, I lived by it.

Guess I have to try a little harder.

If not, the next time, I probably won't prove so lucky as I was concerning Johnny Otis.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Judging the Book

One of George Eliot's epigraphs in Middlemarch concerns what Marshall McLuhan, almost a century later and in a totally different context, would capsulize as 'the medium is the message':

1st Gent. How class your man? -- as better than the most,
Or, seeming better, worse beneath that cloak?
As saint or knave, pilgrim or hypocrite?
2d Gent. Nay, tell me how you class your wealth of books
The drifted relies of all time.
As well Sort them at once by size and livery:
Vellum, tall copies, and the common calf
Will hardly cover more diversity
Than all your labels cunningly devised
To class your unread authors. 

'Unread authors.' That's the content, the being 'beneath the cloak.' In this sense, what McLuhan said was never that revolutionary: You can't judge a book by its cover. But we always have. The thing about McLuhan is that he became more interested in covers than in content, and just at a time when covers were, in fact, often more interesting. The fact of television, certainly, was more intriguing than its content—in the 1950s, at least.

Even so, content and medium are inextricably linked. That television's content improved and widened has a great deal to do with how the medium of television improved and widened. In this sense, the medium is something like an empty bowl, the content whatever eventually fills it. At first, the bowl itself may produce oohs and aahs, but if it is ever filled with water (and water is easily available elsewhere), eventually it will be forgotten, even if used, as just another medium for water. If, on the other hand, it is filled first with beer, then wine, then another new and attractive drink, people will return to it over and over again. The medium may be the message, but that message still has something to do with the content.

The importance of the particulars of each instance of the medium has been recognized since long before George Eliot. What Walter Ong calls 'literacy' culture made judging the cover a part of selection of what content to enjoy. Pulp fiction attracted some people and repelled others, but it was always easily identifiable through the cheap paper (pulp) it was printed on and its lurid covers. Finely tooled and embossed leather covers generally signified a volume some one person (at least) felt worth saving for generations, perhaps.

With centuries between the introduction of moveable type and George Eliot's novel, it had become commonplace, even done without conscious thought, to judge a book before opening it. One had to: there were just too many books to study each and every one (even today, we look back at only a small percentage of Victorian literature). Ways of narrowing the search for something to read or to study were necessary, and became more and more so, the more books there were to choose from. We developed even further ways of limiting the volumes we chose among, bookstores and libraries narrowing the choices for us, and we choosing even the different bookstores and libraries, dependent on our needs and desires (one would not look in a news stand for the latest from Walter Pater and would not expect to find the newest 'penny dreadful' in a university library).

These things were learned unconsciously through one's environment. One could see who else was browsing a particular venue, who was looking as what. The cost and care of production and presentation, also, were immediately apparent. Different products were even available in different neighborhoods.

Today, as we progress from a 'literacy' environment to a 'neteracy' one, we are losing many of the environmental and physical signals that long helped us determine the subset of books (now of media of myriad type) that we want to choose within. This is difficult enough for those of us who grew up, at least, having learned a process of choice through physical distinction. It is almost impossible for the younger generation, for whom those distinctions never existed. When books don't come from bookstores or libraries, the physical location becomes irrelevant—and they cannot use what others, people who we also judged by their appearances, are choosing to help them.

Because this sort of discrimination is not something my generation learned in school, it is not something most of us think of teaching. And, because we are now the ones in charge of our schools, it is not something often taught.

We need to change this, working to establish in even elementary-school students the ability to make quick choices on the internet, just was we learned to do for physical locations as we accompanied our parents around town as children.

The signals helping us make intelligent choices are there on the web, but they are different from those we used in the past. The sooner we start finding ways of teaching recognition of those signals, the sooner the next generations will be able to use the internet effectively.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Testing and the Wisdom of Crowds


The other day, I gave my Advanced Technical Writing students a quiz. One question: "Name three things you should do before starting any research project."
The answers weren't in their text. I had not told them what these things should be in prior classes. In fact, the question had not come up--which is one reason I asked it.
What I was doing was something of an experiment on the wisdom of crowds and an attempt to make a point about authority and the weakness of the multiple-choice test when it is the sole means of evaluation.
Instead of grading the quizzes, I created a chart of their answers, grouping them into eight headings (any one of which could legitimately be on any list of top three tasks). The next day, I reported back to the class, listing to top three (and giving all of the students credit for the quiz). The wisdom of the group of 20 students was that one should:
  1. Consider the question;
  2. Consider what tools are available for researching the question; and
  3. Create a plan for developing an answer to the question.
Simple?  Yes.  An appropriate list?  Yes.  
But would this be the list that I, as teacher, would have given?
No.
My list would have included something about considering audience--but it would not necessarily have been a better list.  In fact, the more I think on it, the list the students came up with is better than mine would have been, for consideration of audience could fall within consideration of the question.
Which is the point.
The students, working independently and without "authority," came up with a list as good as (better than, actually) any I could have created, even if different.  Their group wisdom proved at least as great as (if not greater than) my individual wisdom, for all my experience and preparation.
For the wisdom of crowds to work, there can't be a leader whose views influence the individuals.  In this case, I had given no hint of what I might believe, only that I wanted three elements to their answers.  When people defer to one person's authority, they do not act as individuals, therefore their aggregate answers aren't really an aggregate at all, but simply the reflection of the one.  In such cases, there is no wisdom of the crowd. Of course, there are certainly cases where one does not want to rely on the wisdom of crowds, for the crowd may itself be limited, but it is certainly one way of producing knowledge and can work well as one aspect of education.
When we judge education simply by seeing if students can parrot back answers that we have already decided are correct, we stick ourselves in a rut, believing in the one true answer and ignoring the wide range of possibility that is out world.  A multiple-choice test can be useful, yes, but it puts forward a view of knowledge that is extremely limiting and confining to students attempting to really learn.  A multiple-choice test is the opposite of the quiz I gave, for the students are asked to choose between things presented rather than presenting things they have chosen.
Both student-generated knowledge and teacher-presented knowledge are needed for education to be complete.  But we have moved towards "testing" as the single means of evaluating education and knowledge.  However, as my students showed on that quiz (and in many other ways), real learning goes way beyond what can be encapsulated on a test.
My students learned a great deal through that quiz... through the discussion that ensued when I gave them back a graph and not individual test papers.  They now know a little better that there are different kinds of authority, and generally a number of possible answers to even a simple question.  They are learning to set up their own research projects and even 'process documents' in ways that reflect the possibility of multiple routes to any one solution... or solutions.
Learning is something that students do, not something that teachers give them.  Evaluation, then, needs to take into account actual student thought and action, not simply their ability to memorize what teachers have spoon-fed them.
Until we reclaim that, no number of attempts to reform our schools will succeed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Technology and Education

For the past several weeks, I have been helping coordinate development of the English curriculum for a new public high school in Brooklyn.  Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) will open in September with cooperation between New York City College of Technology (City Tech--where I teach), the New York City Board of Education and IBM.  The idea is that the school will provide a seamless sequence from ninth grade through attainment of Associates degrees in technology or technology-related fields within six years.  All I've been doing, really, is telling a group of competent educators what the expectations are for students entering our First Year Composition course.  It quickly became clear, as I listened in on their discussions, that they don't need me to tell them what to do (as if I even could), merely to explain what their goals should be from the perspective of one of the students' potential college teachers.

That they can walk things back from there and put together an effective plan was made clear by Rashid Davis, the founding principal of the school and a man with Masters degrees from Columbia, Fordham, and Pace on top of a B.A. from Morehouse College--in addition to seven years as a teacher and eight as an administrator.  Davis and his teachers and staff are clearly able, educated, and dedicated.  It is a pleasure to watch them work as they plan for the opening of school in the fall.

There is a three-pronged approach to education at P-Tech, through Technology, Mathematics, and English.  Though I would like to see more Social Studies in the curriculum, I understand the factors that have led to a more restricted curriculum in the face of contemporary cultural demands for education more directed to jobs than to the grander vision espoused by John Dewey, where education also serves to create citizens.  Fortunately, the English part of the program, as I understand it, will include, in its readings and subsequent discussions and writings, as much as possible to make up for the lack.

One of the things I like about P-Tech is that it moves in directions opposite of the charter-school movement.  Not only is it a public school, but it is really public: As the P-Tech website says, "There are no tests to get in. Students of all abilities will be accepted."  To me, that's really cool, for it indicates that the school accepts the real challenge of education, to bring all students to the levels they can reach.  Too often, we restrict our schools (and colleges) to those who have already gained the tools (generally through family and class backgrounds) for success.  The whole idea of public education is to provide pathways for everyone, not just an elite, no matter how you might define it.

To see a new public school starting up is particularly invigorating in the current climate of compression and diminution of public education.  In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes:
The Center on Education Policy reports that 70 percent of school districts nationwide endured budget cuts in the school year that just ended, and 84 percent anticipate cuts this year.

In higher education, the same drama is unfolding. California’s superb public university system is being undermined by the biggest budget cuts in the state’s history. Tuition is set to rise about 20 percent this year, on top of a 26 percent increase last year, which means that college will become unaffordable for some.

The immediate losers are the students. In the long run, the loser is our country.
Let me amend that: The immediate losers are our children.  In the long run, the losers are all of us.  In other words, this is personal.  For me, to be personally involved (even if just tangentially) in something like P-Tech allows me the optimism to believe that we can turn things around.  P-Tech may not do quite everything I would like, but it is a start in the right direction, and it shows that even a business like IBM can understand the value of trying new things rather than just squeezing into nothing the most successful system of public education ever.

Kristof details what has happened to his own high school, the cutbacks that make the education he received less and less possible.  The bleeding of education affects each of our lives, even if we don't all succeed in the way Kristof has.  We're talking about our children, here.  Only a few can attend the private schools and charter schools.  The vast majority will always have to rely on the broader public-school system.

In his article, Kristof's mentions Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's 2010 book The Race Between Education and Technology.  Though the book may be flawed in that it might seem to place education in too narrow a focus (the authors might wish they, too, had paid a little more attention to Dewey), the point Kristof takes from it is not: mass education is a primary reason for American success over the last century.  If our schools don't seem to be working (and I would disagree with that--I think the whole "failure" meme of public education is both false and fake), then the answer is not to destroy them, as too many seem to want to do these days, but to find ways of improving them.

We have a pool of talented educators, many of them still working in public education (the faculty and staff of P-Tech are not particularly unusual in their skills) and many more who could be attracted back to the profession.  Why don't we use them?  We need to reject this idea that our teachers have destroyed our schools (they have not, and the schools are still quite good) and find ways to support them and the efforts, like P-Tech, they are making to improve our educational institutions in ways that reflect both changing societal demands (and needs) and the realities of educating students for life in a world dominated by technology.

Once, our public schools made us the world-wide leaders in technology.  They can again, but we all have to support them--and that means supporting the professionalism of our teachers (and not always breathing down their necks with things like 'value added' ratings) and supporting adequate funding, even if that means, sometimes, increasing our taxes.  Paying now will produce dividends later, just as it did, as Goldin and Katz demonstrate, throughout the twentieth century.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Attacking Education

In a blog post last month, Diane Ravitch introduced a list of reasons to be a little more hopeful about American public education than one might expect to be, given the concentrated and coordinated attack on it we are now in the midst of.  What interested me most, however, wasn't the list, but the quick comments she makes on the attack.  She writes:
In the past, we have had pendulum swings about pedagogical methods or educational philosophy, but never a full-fledged, well-funded effort to replace public schools with private management and never a full-throated effort to hold public school teachers accountable for the ills of society.

What is happening now has no precedent in the past. For the first time in our history, there is a concerted attempt, led by powerful people, to undermine the very idea of public schooling and to de-professionalize those who work in this sector. Sure, there were always fringe groups and erratic individuals who hated the public schools and who disparaged credentials and degrees as unimportant.

But these were considered extremist views. No one took them seriously.
They also took aim at higher education... and we should have been taking them seriously.  For it almost looks, now, as if the "extremists" of yesterday were simply a dress rehearsal for what's going on now.

David Horowitz, who was the point person for a well-funded attack on college professors over the early years of the century, has drifted to the media background recently, as the attack has shifted from his risible attempts to paint faculty members as unregenerate leftists trying to subvert a generation of Americans to a much more sophisticated strategy aiming to undermine the credibility of that much larger group of professionals, public-school teachers.

When you manage to rope in Bill Gates, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and a whole raft of governors and school-board members, you don't need bomb throwers of the Horowitz sort any longer.

But what's going on now has no more legitimacy than Horowitz's campaign did.

One day, one of us out here will manage to unscramble the hidden machinations behind both the Horowitz test and the current "real thing."  But that is going to have to wait until the hope Ravitch sees comes to fruition.  The battle has to be won before the history can be written.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Beloved Country: A Memory

As I recall it, 1964 began with a phone call.  Perhaps it was New Year’s Eve; I was looking after my younger brothers, my parents being out.  On the line was Bob Barrus, teacher at the boarding school I attended, the Arthur Morgan School up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, near where my mother was from.

“Your house burned down.”

“What do you mean?  I’m in my house.”  At twelve, I wasn’t too quick on the uptake.  Bob, though, probably thought I was being flip.

“Your house here, at Celo, at school.  It burned down today.”

I didn’t know how to react.  What I thought about mostly was my collection of nickels, something I’d put a lot of effort into building.  The house was more of a cottage and probably wasn't that great of a loss.  Three of us students lived there, me, Artie, and Jeff.  Along with us had been a student teacher from Antioch College named Chuck, but he would be returning to college after the break.

How I got back to school after the break is lost in my own fog.  Perhaps my parents drove me up from Atlanta, where we then lived.  Perhaps, as sometimes happened, they put me on the bus, to be picked up in Asheville

For the winter, we were moved to a cabin about a mile from the school, a place optimistically named “Walden,” its builder having first planned on constructing everything himself and being completely self-sufficient.  He only completed part, then brought in help.  Even then, the place had never been quite completed.  There was a sink, for example, but no water.  The little pump out at the spring had never been completely installed and, in the years the house had sat empty, had been vandalized to nothing.  I loved that spring from the start and can still remember it clearly, the shiny, chilly water pooling before sliding over the rocks to start a small brook.  I particularly remember the joy of disturbing the surface with a ladle.

For some reason, my memory places the outhouse slightly uphill from the spring, but I know that’s not possible.  No one would have placed it there, not even the optimist who had begun the house.

Our heat was a fireplace and a small pot-bellied stove.  There were two bedrooms for the four of us (another student teacher, this one named Pat, had joined us).  Generally, one person slept in the main room.  That one had the responsibility, on cold winter mornings (and it can get cold up there in the mountains, especially when snow covers the ground), of jumping out of bed and lighting the prepared fires in stove and fireplace before diving quickly back under the covers until the room had warmed.  Once that had occurred, the others of us would shiver in from the bedrooms to dress where we wouldn’t freeze.

We spent a great deal of our time cutting wood.  Years later, I realized just how much I had learned about saws when, asked to take one side of a cross-cut, I outlasted three teenagers on the other.  I had fallen back into the pattern learned early of letting the saw do most of the work, never pressing or pushing, pulling smoothly and gently.

We generally hauled our wood up on a small trailer attached to an army-surplus 1943 Willy’s jeep nicknamed ‘the holely heap.’  Not much else could make it up there.  We had to walk to school, so rarely returned to the cabin before nightfall.  At school, we could shower and eat before classes—and participate in chores, including cooking and taking care of the animals.  Though there were cows among the AMS community, and I sometimes helped care for them (though generally I was relegated to the chickens), we students weren’t allowed to drink the milk, but had to be happy with that coming in little half-pint cartons.

One day in the spring, Pat drove the three of us over to Eastern Tennessee (not far, really) to visit a family he knew who were building their own house.  They were a little more structured and able than I suspect the man who had started our Walden was, building out of logs they cut themselves and had planed with an adz.  To get there, we had to head down into their hollow via a series of switchbacks on a narrow dirt road, making the trip a lot longer than one might otherwise imagine, for the turns were steep and almost 180 degrees, and sometimes the edge of the road had crumbled a bit.  We were used to similar roads, but this, in my memory, was the steepest I'd seen.

A number of lean-tos and sheds dotted the area around the house.  I believe the roof was already on, but I don’t think the family had moved in yet—I think they were living in an old school bus parked on the property, but my memory on that is fuzzy.

Pat chatted with his friends and we scouted the area.  Uphill from the house, a couple of men (we had parked beside their pickup) were coiling long black rubber hoses they had dug up.  The hoses originated in an area where the trees were covered with white stuff.  There had clearly been an explosion and a fire; the structure there had been completely demolished, as little now left as there had been of our first house after our own fire.

This one, we were told later, had been no accident.  The two men were moonshiners salvaging what they could, for the revenuers had been there the day before, had chopped the still to pieces and then had blown up the remnants.

We had all seen stills before, but generally gave them a wide berth.  Operating ones were valuable, and their owners could get a little touchy when people got too nosey.  This one, though, was gone, so no one really cared.  The two men were likely known to the authorities anyway, and were now doing nothing illegal, so they didn’t mind us wandering around where, two days before, we’d have been highly unwelcome.

On the last day of the term, as I prepared to go back to Atlanta where my family was packing up to move once again (the fate, it seems, of many of the Appalachian diaspora), Pat handed me a book.  He must have seen my fascination with another Antioch student, the roommate of Lee Morgan, the son of the couple, Ernest and Elizabeth Morgan, who ran the school (named after Ernest’s father).  That student was a young Kenyan named Alphonse Okuku, and it is he who first interested me in Africa.

The book Pat gave me was Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

Both Alphonse and that book are mentioned in the Introduction to the book I edited that came out this year, One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo.  Africa eventually became as important to me as Appalachia, and both remain in my heart.