Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In Praise of Elizabeth Gilbert




 Reviews of the work of Elizabeth Gilbert almost invariably include a sentence or two noting the enormous success of her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and frequently make reference--sometimes snide, sometimes admiring--to the legions of besotted female readers who found inspiration in Gilbert's tale of physical and spiritual longing and discovery in the wake of divorce.  So at times I wonder what's wrong with me, as I count myself as one of the few males I know who is an an utter devotee of Gilbert's work.  I count her, along with Jon Krakauer, as one of the two greatest modern masters of the nonfiction form.

I fell in love with her memoir the first time I read it, and have subsequently assigned it in multiple classes I have taught.  At this point I have read it close to a dozen times, and still find it as enjoyable as the first time through, as each new read gives me the opportunity to admire and emulate her quick wit, her playful prose, her nuanced depiction of complex spiritual conflicts, and her skillful handling of narrative structure.  I admire all of these qualities in equal proportion in her previous nonfiction book, The Last American Man, a portrait of mountain man Eustace Conway.  Almost every semester I find myself assigning one or the other of these two nonfiction works to my students, in part for the great joy I take in re-reading them myself, but more importantly because her work provides such excellent models for my writing students in so many areas.

Hence it was with some trepidation that I finally undertook to read The Signature of All Things, Gilbert's epic new novel, as soon as the fall semester was over.  I had purchased the book shortly after it was published a few months back, but had been reading about it for much longer than that, thanks to Gilbert's countdown to publication on her Facebook page.  I had read and heard so much about the book that I feared from it the disappointment one sometimes experiences from a long-anticipated event.

I finished the book this evening, the last day of 2013, and can happily say that I have found in it the same lovely writing that I have admired so much in her nonfiction writing.  The book is a big and generous read, a novel of 19th-century America, of scientific curiosity, of sexual longing, and of world exploration.  I won't spend much time here reviewing it, as the book has been reviewed in so many places already.  You can read a glowing review of it on NPR, for example (and note, by the way, the subtly gendered reference to fans "tearfully clutching" copies of her previous books), or a more mixed appraisal from the New York Times.

But here's what I really want to say about Gilbert, and what makes me such an admirer of her work.  On every page of this novel, as on every page of her nonfiction writing, one can see the imprint of a human being who finds the world an utterly fascinating place, and who seeks to learn from it afresh at every turn.  I can imagine almost any human being on the planet meeting Elizabeth Gilbert at a party, and telling her some seemingly insignificant fact about him or her self, and Gilbert's eyes lighting up with genuine interest, and exclaiming: "Really? Tell me more about that!"  And that response would be a completely genuine one.

As a constant reader of nonfiction, both literary and otherwise, this quality seems to me missing from so much of the genre.  Too many writers expect that, now that I have sat down with their book, I should sit up straight and pay attention: "I wrote a book; sit quietly and learn."  Gilbert never seems to take this for granted.  One hears, behind almost every page of her writing, an unspoken sentiment of sheer enthusiasm for her subject matter: "You think that was interesting--wait until you hear what's next!"

In this respect, good nonfiction writing is a lot like teaching.  As I have argued in a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about the tragic death of teacher Colleen Ritzer, teachers have a responsibility to model intellectual curiosity for their students.  Before we can expect students to sit up straight and learn, we have to entice them to take a seat and wonder about what we have to teach.  The teacher's passion for learning, and for her subject matter--just like the passion of the writer--strikes me as an essential tool in helping to accomplish that objective.  Gilbert's writing makes me wonder, and that wonder draws me into her travels, her characters, and her research.

At the conclusion of Gilbert's new novel, her heroine responds to a question about whether or not she believes in an afterlife with an encomium to the world we have before us: "I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me," she says.  "All I ever wanted was to know this world.  I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived."

At the end of The Signature of All Things, just as at the conclusion to her nonfiction books, I find myself not only knowing a little bit more about this world, but also energized to get out and conduct some explorations of my own.  As this year rolls into a new one, I hope to take a page from Gilbert and find new ways to inspire both readers and students to do the same.   

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Cheating Student Speaks Up

This morning I received an e-mail from education writer Jessica Lahey that my book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty would be mentioned in her education column over at The Atlantic.  I was thrilled, and even more thrilled to read her very kind and generous article about the book.

I went about my business during the day, which was mostly preparing for a webinar on cheating that I was doing for Magna publications.  When I finished that webinar, I had an e-mail from Jess which she was forwarding from a student at a top state university.  The student's message offered a disturbingly honest confession of the cheating she had done in high school, the total lack of remorse she felt for it, and an explanation of why she put the blame for her cheating squarely on the back of her poor high school education.  You can read the whole thing here, but here's a brief excerpt:

"It boils down to this: we are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. A grade earned by cheating is not a grade reflective of our true achievement. But my contention uses identical reasoning. I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. I never cheated in a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. That is supported by my performance in AP testing. I took 9 AP tests in high school, scoring 5s on all of them except the one I self-studied for, on which I earned a 4. Never did I cheat on any of those tests, because I felt that they were fair representations of my learning. But in AP Biology, I cheated on literally every in-class test. The curriculum and test techniques of my absolutely atrocious AP Biology class were not fair representations of my knowledge. I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system. This is only one example. I also cheated throughout physics, introduction to statistics, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. But never did I cheat a subject that I did not learn on my own terms."
What can you say about this?

On the one hand, the student's explanation of her cheating supports my overall approach to the problem.  Cheating represents a failure in the teaching/learning transaction, and we should look at all features of that transaction to understand and combat the problem--including the role that the course design and teaching practices play.  Teachers aren't perfect, and we have to acknowledge that we may contribute to the problem. Thinking hard about cheating can help us understand when we are not reaching students effectively, and we can learn from it how to do our jobs better.

But I would never argue--and did not argue in the book--that this excuses students for their cheating.  There are two problems with her explanation:

1) She found herself in a difficult situation, in which she felt she was not given a real opportunity to learn.  Her frustration is understandable.  But she could have found other ways to try and improve that situation, rather than simply defaulting to one that compromised her academic integrity.  Did she talk to her parents about her courses?  Her teacher? Her principal?  Did she talk to other students about how they might have worked together to effect change in the curriculum?  I recognize that these would be challenging activities for a high school student to undertake, but she has to recognize that she will encounter such difficult situations throughout her life, and there are always going to be easy and wrong solutions, and difficult but better ones.  We have to train ourselves to choose the better ones.

2) Dan Ariely's research on cheating and dishonesty, which forms an important basis for my own research, suggests that multiple instances of cheating produce a "What the Hell?" effect in the cheater.  After cheating a certain number of times, he explains, the subjects in his experiments always reached a tipping point after which they seemed to just say "What the Hell?" and cheated at every opportunity that presented itself.  So if you get into the habit of cheating, cheating becomes a habit--and that habit may bleed over into all other areas of your life.

When it comes to cheating, we need all hands on deck.  I firmly we believe we need the teaching/learning approach I take to cheating, but I believe as well we need to help students understand that honesty matters, and that their work in our courses should help prepare them for lives of integrity beyond their college years.