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As the winter approaches, I am thinking of how to reconsider my teaching of the James Baldwin lecture I have often blogged about, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.”
At first, worried about the physical return to the classroom, the absence of mask mandates, and classrooms with compromised ventilation in a city that has elevated covid contagion rates, I thought I might take a break from “Artist’s Struggle.” My brain kareemed back and forth like a ball in an old-fashioned pinball machine, between worries about pedagogy and personal safety.
With pedagogy, I didn’t want “Artist’s Struggle”-- or anything else, for that matter– to become routine in my teaching. Indeed, the burnout from what had become routine last spring was an important reason to take a leave of absence. When I return to the classroom next semester,I don’t want to use the same assignments from Zoom classes, or from before the pandemic. Mostly, I would prefer to revise old assignments from a new perspective, or switch up the assignments all together. In light of the transition from four and a half semesters online to in-person teaching, how would I possibly find the energy for a fresh approach?
But then, there is my favorite quote from “Artist’s Struggle,” a quote that, in fall 2019, the last full semester before the pandemic, students suggested to me was the whole point of Baldwin’s lecture: “All safety is an illusion.”
Photo by Susan Bernstein, January 2022.
My brain slowed down. I took a breath. The physical safety of the classroom and of the city itself cannot be guaranteed. All safety is an illusion not only for the upcoming semester, and not only at the beginning of lockdown in March 2020 and through the waves of Delta and Omicron that kept me teaching on Zoom, but before the pandemic as well. It was what my students three years ago, before the pandemic cataclysm, already knew.
Across the country, faculty and administrators expressed ongoing concerns about students’ mental health. I wondered, yet again, what would happen if we publicly acknowledged and remembered that terrible events had happened in our country, and that more than a million of our people are dead from Covid 19. I knew that I had been paralyzed by that thought and wracked by grief. I also knew that the grief was beginning to seem less fraught. Unlike fog in sunshine, the grief had not evaporated. But there was a light that resembled the physics of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
If I wanted to go back to teaching Baldwin again and his work differently, I would need to find that light. “Artist’s Struggle” is a jeremiad and very often bleak, but it is suffused with light as well. The light comes, at least for me, from Baldwin’s language weighted with the history of the twentieth-century, and his courage in facing “the fact,” as my students understood, “that all safety is an illusion. As Baldwin suggests elsewhere,
There’s something wrong, you know, with someone who says he’s in despair who keeps on writing….I’m aware, you know, that I and the people I love may perish in the morning…. But there’s light on our faces now. I’m perfectly happy, odd as it sounds, and relatively free.
At the moment, I am considering the courage to write in the face of despair and discovering how to find the light. For my last post of fall 2022, I hope to offer a draft of the revised Baldwin assignment.
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