Notes at Midterm Spring 2022: "Diving into the Wreck"

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In memory of poet-teacher Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)


A shipwreck 33mm deep, of the coast of Bohol Island, Philippines.jpg

Photo by Olga Tsai “The wreck in 33m deep in Bohol Island, Philippines.” November 12, 2019

Free to use under the Unsplash license


I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

-Adrienne Rich,  “Diving into the Wreck

From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.



1. 2 Years Online

This month, March 2022, marks the tenth anniversary of the death of poet-teacher Adrienne Rich, and the second anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and the beginning of remote learning in New York City.  Two years later, I am still teaching online, and I still believe that online instruction is not a temporary solution to an intractable problem. Indeed, a problem as intractable as Covid-19 leaves its afterimage everywhere, even as the virus still hovers in the background, seemingly invisible, but not yet disappeared. 


2. Diving into the Wreck: Affect and Asynchronous Teaching and Learning

After two years, I more fully understand the challenges of creating and fostering online community, and especially affective involvement with asynchronous work– the work of feeling and experiencing writing beyond the minimal fulfillment of course requirements. Offline and away from immediate real-time classroom communication, I want to recreate a sense of purpose that was more easily conveyed in face-to-face classrooms before March 2020. Most of all, I want to reinvent movement and flow of lessons and interactions among students and among students and teachers. My hope is that we have taken time to work in community (synchronously on Zoom) and as satellites orbiting the community, but with a sense of connectedness (asynchronously). 


In other words, asynchronous learning, for me, is more than following directions to complete the assignment, more than the number of pages, paragraphs, words, quotes, and citations that students often ask about. Of course the baseline requirements need to be clear, but asynchronous learning can involve more than merely satisfying the quantitative aspects of the assignment. The pandemic taught me that qualitative attributes of learning also matter. I had to think through how my students might be experiencing language in the wreck of lockdown and the suffering of too many communities. 


This learning took place in the midst of lockdown, my father’s death from Covid concurrent with the beginning of the Capital riot (three weeks before his first vaccine was scheduled), then deep grief, and aggravated generalized anxiety, then Delta, and then Omicron. I learned again the multimodality of language, that the words cannot stay flat on the screen or in the inflection of my voice in a video recorded lesson. In asynchronous learning, in the long slow-motion and ongoing wreck of the pandemic,  I remembered “Diving into the Wreck”: “The words are purposes/The words are maps.” 


 3. National Emergency

Adrienne Rich, the poet-teacher , whose memory is honored in this post, taught writing in the early years of the SEEK program (Seeking Education, Elevation and Knowledge)  and open admissions at the City College of New York.  In those years, Rich was present for the nationwide student strikes of Spring 1970


The strikes, at hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States, took place in the midst of national catastrophe. At the end of April, in conjunction with the Vietnam War, President Nixon announced that US troops had begun a ground invasion of Cambodia, and that the US had been bombing Cambodia for eighteen months. Student protests rose up, in the midst of civil unrest, students died by state violence . On May 15th, two students were killed and twelve injured at Jackson State by local and state police in Mississippi and, on May 4th, four students were killed and nine students injured at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard. 


 In the aftermath of the killings and the subsequent strikes, colleges and universities closed and classes were canceled. Remote learning in the spring of 1970, as in the winter of 2020, provoked a sense of national emergency. Longstanding systemic violence no longer was invisible. My partner who was ending his first year at Kent State and was an eyewitness to the killings, had not yet completed spring quarter courses or  taken final exams.Then, as now, bearing witness to national emergency brought trauma and disruption.  


4. Conclusion: Adrienne Rich and Analog Forms

In 1970, as in 2020, educators struggled with what came next– what teaching and learning could mean in the face of confrontation with longstanding structural violence. The problems of violence and interrupted schooling were not new, as many people were already bearing witness to the violence and school closings precipitated by Southern resistance to Brown v. Board of Education.  In 1970, with no Zoom and no internet, remote schooling evolved to fit analog forms. 


My partner settled his spring quarter grades in a tentative return to Kent State over the summer. Adrienne Rich grappled with teaching and learning catastrophic conditions in real time. With deep concern for her students (see Kynard pages 216-217), Rich offered culturally relevant writing assignments, and invited students to phone her and to mail their writing to her home address. Not long afterward, Rich published her poem “Diving into the Wreck.”  


A decade after her passing, Adrienne Rich’s work in and out of classrooms remains deeply relevant . In “Diving into the Wreck,” Rich offers what feel like guidelines for the spring of 2022: “To see the damage done/ and the treasures that prevail.” These lines remind me not  to look away from either the damage or the treasures, to learn from what is found, what is reclaimed, and from what is irretrievably lost–  no matter the inconvenience  and the pain, to grow from that learning, however necessary and for however long.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.