learning to read

I have always sort of lived for reading and writing and I also read and write for a living. I spent years studying both of these things before I got a job as a professor teaching these things at a university. I am still learning to read and write in new and different ways all the time.

A thing about this global pandemic is that it’s pushed me to rethink how I read and write, and how I share these practices with students, in countless ways. I’ve been uncomfortable with some of it, but I’ve also had a lot of fun experimenting with new strategies and methods, some of which I’ve held onto as we’ve moved back to the physical classroom, back to a F2F (if masked) environment.

One of the things teaching remotely got me doing much more than I ever had in the past–more in the last year and a half ++ than in my whole teaching career before this–is invite guests into my classes. The technology was there before all of this to bring someone in who couldn’t be there in person. But it took these insane circumstances for me to really lean into doing this more frequently. Of course, other writers and readers are there in my classes all the time. The course materials and assignments in every class I teach pull in other voices and perspectives constantly. But this is different. Talented, creative, smart guests can bring so much to a classroom exchange and dynamic, virtually or in person: other perspectives on the material, differences in style/approach, energy from outside that can totally transform a conversation’s feels and flows.

My latest class “visit” took the form of a recorded chat with Angus Reid, a PhD Candidate in English at UC-Berkeley, for HIST 390: “THE BOMB”-A CULTURAL HISTORY. It’s an undergrad course I’m teaching for the first time. Each week, we look at different cultural representations, forms, and objects: photography, painting, sculpture, film, literary sources, etc. This week, we’re working with poems and short fiction. I’m an avid reader of poetry, but I wanted my class to get some help reading poetry from someone who thinks about the genre a lot more than we do, someone who also teaches poetry. For scheduling and other reasons, we recorded our dialogue rather than having Angus join the class virtually in real time. There’s more to say about the different ways I have brought guests in and how things have gone/felt.

My conversation with Angus had me sort of vibrating with joy for hours after. We talked about:

the way a poem can look
and sound
the Beats
the Bay Area

And we spoke very specifically about the 1958 Gregory Corso poem “Bomb”.

Gregory Corso, “Bomb” in the collection Happy Birthday to Death (New Directions Books, 1960)

Speaking with Angus, I wasn’t just posing questions for/on behalf of my class. I was learning to read this poem I’d read a hundred times before in a new way, learning to think about and approach poetry differently, learning to read afresh. One of the best things about reading and writing as (a) living is how this kind of thing is happening constantly, especially when it happens like this, in conversation. I’m so grateful to all the colleagues and friends like Angus who’ve been helping me get through this intense period of my teaching life, who’ve given so generously of their time and ideas, who’ve kept–and always keep–the room from getting too lonesome.

Here’s our conversation:

Reading Corso’s “Bomb” with Angus Reid