The first interview in a series of conversations with writer-educators on the intersections between writing, teaching, and identity
PART 2 OF 2 (Click here to read Pt 1)
Mike Rose is the son of working class Italian-immigrant parents who settled in South Los Angeles in the 1950s. Rose, a long-time advocate for underrepresented students in higher education, is an award-winning non-fiction writer and the recipient of numerous awards. His latest book is Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, published by New Press in 2012, reissued in paperback last month. He teaches in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and his essays and thoughts about writing and educational equity can be found on his blog: http://mikerosebooks.blogspot.com
Mike and I had a series of telephone conversations in September and October 2015.
Kirsten Ogden: When we last talked, Mike, we ended with your epiphany about how you finally knew you were a writer. I am especially interested in the way your books and essays integrate educational research with personal experience. you also somehow find a way to passionately advocate for the importance of educational equity, a cause I care about deeply. You blend the analytic and the poetic into a hybrid form that is lyrical but also grounded in research. How did that blending come about?
Mike Rose: I had been doing both analytic and poetic writing for quite a while, and both were important to me, but each remained separate, separate in purpose, style, and audience. Certainly separate in mood and frame of mind. Even separate in time of day and place in the house where I wrote. But over time, this separation began to feel artificial, like I was splitting life apart, portraying experience in partial, segmented ways. I began to wonder about the possibility of combining different kinds of writing. Could analytic, even formally academic prose, be blended with poetry, with story?
So one afternoon – and I remember the day vividly – I spread a sheet of butcher paper out on my bed, the windows were open, curtains fluttering, the sun warming the paper. I photocopied a few paragraphs on the structure of long-term memory from one of my cognitive psychology textbooks and pasted them on the paper. Underneath them, I placed some lines of poetry I had written about events from my childhood. A discussion of memorial processes right next to a depiction of memories. Could I weave these together somehow? Over the next few months, I would shift from poetry to narrative vignette – about my own education and that of others as well – and in place of the textbook passages, there would be analysis of the kind I was writing in Ed school, but without the academic trappings – analysis of problems with learning, for example, or of the history of a practice like grammar instruction. It was this sort of fooling around with bits of very different texts that would lead to the blended genre of my first trade book, Lives on the Boundary.
Kirsten Ogden: I love those kinds of epiphanies when we discover some way of writing that will literally change everything for us. This genre you explored sounds like what some call the “Braided Essay” form in literary non-fiction. Weaving research from Education and the Social Sciences into your writing shapes your narrative voice, doesn’t it? Can you talk about that a bit?
Mike Rose: Well, I hope the research gives my writing a little more authority, particularly for educators or policymakers. And I hope the use of research in this way — narrativizing it, so to speak – helps make it accessible. I am sick of the opaque, inflated language that runs through so much of academic writing.
But the big thing for me is that the incorporation of research and the interweaving of analysis and story give me more linguistic tools to render the very complex worlds of schools, workplaces, and the institutions that serve the poor. Let me give you a small example.
In several books I present vignettes of students struggling to make sense of a lecture in psychology or philosophy or to write a paper explicating a poem. I try to convey not only these students’ actions, backgrounds, and the feelings triggered by their academic struggles but also their thought processes, the reasoning behind an error, or previously learned reading or writing strategies that don’t work now, or insight that gets lost in confusing syntax. There is a robust research literature to help me capture these thought processes.
Kirsten Ogden: I think it also makes the text more relatable for your readers, too. If readers don’t see themselves in the vignettes, they definitely see someone they know.
Mike Rose: Also, from the feedback I’ve gotten, it seems that this blend of genres resonates with students who themselves struggled in school. The pairing of vignette and analysis helps make the analysis come alive, humanizes it. Equally important, a story or descriptive portrait doesn’t stand alone, but connects to explanatory ideas. The people being portrayed aren’t lone actors, aren’t odd or unusual – there are reasons for their circumstances.
Kirsten Ogden: You know, we’ve been talking so much about the analytic and research dimensions of your writing that I would hate for us to give short shrift to the poetic in your prose. There are many places in your work where readers can examine pockets of the poetic in the reportage and analytic. In your book Possible Lives there’s a beautiful paragraph in the “Calexico” chapter about a 3rd grade bilingual classroom taught by Elena Castro.
from “Calexico” Possible Lives by Mike Rose
Maria, tall for her age and pretty, untangled her feet from her chair and walked over to the Research Station. She sat down and looked up at the wall over the encyclopedias. There was a large hand-drawn sketch of fish anatomy, something I hadn’t noticed yet – I’d be discovering new things each day I was here – and Maria settled her chin in her cupped palms and studied a bit longer: heart/corazon, aorta/aorta, gills/agallas, fins/aleta. I let myself drift, thinking how rich this was, half-listening to Elena and the students at the Teacher’s Workshop. I thought about how radically this classroom clashed with so many of our stock representations of school: monochromatic, trivial, regimented, dull. To the side of the children at the Teacher’s Workshop was a broad stretch of wall Mrs. Castro had covered with swirling blue-violet fabric. “Creatures of the Sea” was printed above it. Over the week it would become populated, like a slow-motion nature film, with drawings that had cartoon-like blurbs above them, first-person accounts of what it’s like to be a squid or an electric eel or a puffer fish. A few were already done. Arely’s skillfully rendered walrus said, through its big tusks and whiskers:
I am a walrus. I live in the ocean and I eat fish. I am brown and I have big teeth called tusks. I like to be in the ocean and swim a lot. I also live on the land.
On a little table under the display sat a cluster of objects, material for post-lunch show and tell: a stuffed fuzzy dolphin with “Sea World” scripted on its belly, a few pieces of coral, and a construction of four frogs, about six inches high, playing guitars and trumpets – frog mariachis? – made entirely out of seashells. Fat seashell bodies, thin seashell lips, tiny spiral seashell horns. It’s a lot of fun under the sea.
Kirsten Ogden: It’s clear that your research and your writing greatly inform your personal identity. What about your identity as a teacher? How does teaching relate to and affect your writing?
Mike Rose: Well, lets be honest. If you take your teaching seriously, it is a huge drain on time and emotion. The energy and hours that writing demands take a big hit. But I also know I’ll be teaching somehow, in some fashion until the Grim Reaper flashes his scythe my way. Teaching provides me direct connection to the world outside my head, a connection that is so important to me. In some small way I have the opportunity to assist in another person’s growth. And not to get too psychoanalytic about it, I’m sure I’m also replaying again and again the powerful encounter that changed my life in high school. Through draining, teaching is paradoxically vitalizing for me, pulls me into life in a way that nourishes the basic impulse to render life in prose.
There’s something else, not unrelated, to what I just said, but a bit more intimately connected to writing itself. Teaching draws you into people’s lives, into the workings of their minds, the processing of information, solving problems, new ideas clashing with old. The result can be interest, frustration, struggle, achievement. Some students resist you, tune out, maybe for your whole time with them, . . . but maybe not.
Kirsten Ogden: On your blog you talk about the importance of portraying subjects within this larger human framework and how it helps you champion an important goal–to honestly and effectively represent students. You write that you have “a deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.” The vignettes blended with the research get at these ideas in an authentic way.
Mike Rose: Teaching takes you as close to the human condition as does medicine or the ministry. Much of teaching might be fairly predictable and routine – for that fact, so is medicine or the ministry – but teaching also contains moments of revelation and joy and the deepest challenge. This is a writer’s territory.
Kirsten Ogden: Your comment reminds me of Maria from Back to School, your new book about adult education and non-traditional college students, recently released in paperback. When I read this excerpt, as a teacher, as a non-traditional college student, and as a writer, it demonstrates to me how writing and teaching are intimately related, and how they so deeply inform our identities.
from Back to School by Mike Rose
Maria’s desk is in the front center of the room. She is sitting alongside a young man who started but gave up on the essay portion of the GED exam. He is slumped down in the chair, but looking up at Maria, a knit cap, a pierced eyebrow, a gentle non-expressive face, “I think you gave up too early on your essay,” she says, cocking her head slightly to the left to hold his gaze. “You got a high score on grammar. You can do this.” She puts her hand on his shoulder, “No writing like text messaging. You’re going to show the person who reads this all your knowledge.” The fellow pushes his hands into his jacket pockets. “Come on, can’t you squeeze one little essay out of you?” He takes this in for a moment, then his face warms into a slight smile. “Cool.”
It happens one person at a time.
Special Thanks to Mathew Digges for downloadable excerpt designs.