Redeemed by Confusion: Convocation 2017
Redeemed by Confusion: Convocation 2017
Will Speers

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word convocation as "the action of calling together or assembling by summons; the state or fact of being called together." On the first full Friday of each school year, our community assembles together in Engelhard Hall to hear one member of the faculty deliver a talk on an academic topic of his or her choosing. Over the years, these Convocation talks have often pushed beyond the boundaries of a single field of study and have become a kind of de facto summons to students, not simply to gather in Engelhard and listen, but to go forth and dream hard, work hard, and be people of character. This year's talk was delivered by Associate Head of School and long time English teacher Will Speers. You can read the full text below, or listen to his talk on our Vimeo page.

In the spring of 1977, my sophomore year in college, I took an introductory course to the English Department, English 206, "Modern Literature," taught by two brilliant and legendary professors, Carlos Baker and Samuel Hynes. Professor Baker was the pre-eminent scholar in the world on Ernest Hemingway: built like a linebacker, he was about five and a half feet tall; wild, white eyebrows flamed out from his forehead; he always wore a dark suit, white starched shirt and thin tie. Professor Hynes, who later graded my senior thesis, was a decorated World War II pilot, and had published widely on British Literature and the ordeals of soldiers in war. We read major works by Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and William Butler Yeats. Because this was the 1970s, no one had yet noticed that women and people of color had also written books during Modern Literature.

Last month, I dug out my notebook for that class, because it was a course in which I had struggled. My notes on the lectures by these literary geniuses were pretty sketchy, since I copied down one of every third or fourth concept. What I recall most from this class I took 42 years ago was T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, perhaps the most significant poem of the 20th century. To me, it made absolutely no sense.

Why? The poem begins first in Latin, then Greek, then Italian, then English, then German, then back to English, all within the first 18 lines. There were few footnotes, and the ones given didn't help. In fact, the footnotes were written by Eliot himself, and failed to explain what anything meant. So I went to the library to find critical sources on the poem, not for scholarship, but because I desperately craved the answer key to The Waste Land.

I remember complaining to classmates that the poem was inaccessible to the general reader; that you needed a PhD in philosophy, history, and three languages just to read it. I felt there was a barrier between the poem and me, and that the poem had created, maintained, even extended the wall. I'd never been angry at a writer or a piece of literature before, but I was now. The more frustrated I became, the more I whined about it. Most of my friends avoided me that month.

I have a hunch many of you were confused in your classes this week, and that last Tuesday feels like a semester ago. Confusion happens when we are introduced to something new; it occurs when we move away from what we know, to what we don't know -- to what we didn't know we didn't know.

For new students, let me state the obvious: you felt disoriented this week; suddenly you are in high school, and the familiar ground of last year vanished with the Square Dance. Two years ago, a senior, Alexia Ildefonso '16, reflected back on what it was like for her as a freshman. Some of you will remember her talk in Chapel:

"I was wrong in English class when I thought the story "Hills Like White Elephants" was actually about elephants. I was wrong in IPSGA when I thought the best way to solve a math problem was by using an equation. I was even wrong all during the summer preceding my freshman year, because my history teacher had assigned a summer reading book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that was dedicated to explaining why basically everything I'd learned in middle school was wrong." [Read the full text of Alexia's talk in the Spring Review 2016 issue of the St. Andrew's Magazine.]

Alexia's experience was less about being wrong as it was about being in a new educational environment -- a world of process, critical thinking, collaboration, questions, rethinking, ambiguity, more questions. This week you heard teachers respond to what you thought was obviously "the answer" with: "Can you put some pressure on that?" And your mind is probably about to scream: "No I can't! I just gave you a perfectly good answer! I don't want to 'put pressure' on it, whatever 'put pressure' means!"

I have fresh sympathy this fall for new students, because I began my 39th year at St. Andrew's attending III Form classes during our faculty meetings two weeks ago. I went to U.S. History, Chinese and math; I was actually not allowed to attend Mr. Gold's Dance class. In each of these courses, I was baffled; indeed, I was encouraged to be unsure, to study in ways not taught back in the Middle Ages when I was a 9th grader. For example, Ms. Pressman asked us to read original documents, to consider who was writing this document, when it was written, and who the audience was. Instead of concentrating on events and how they happened, she was asking us to analyze how the incidents were narrated. She kept repeating, "Does this confirm or complicate your understanding?" In math with Mr. Permutt, he wasn't that interested in the answer Ms. Taylor, Mr. Robinson and I formulated (an answer which, by the way, was correct, and reached much faster than the one Mr. Foehl, Ms. Saliba and Ms. Gahagan came to), but how we came to that number, and what did the process mean. He continuously asked us, "What questions do you have?" -- which implied we were supposed to have them, and he wanted to hear them. And in Chinese class, Ms. Chiu didn't give us sheets of vocabulary words, nor was there Chinese food, which I heard she made all the time for her students. Instead, she immediately made us speak Chinese. She taught us how to greet and introduce ourselves in Chinese -- although I'm not sure what Mr. Terrell Myers and I were actually saying back and forth to each other. Yet Ms. Chiu made our initial ignorance safe: she spoke the words until we got them; she made what we didn't know accessible by having us act, sing, clap, move. While I was constantly perplexed by the sounds and characters, Ms. Chiu galvanized my terror and uncertainty into (very) partial fluency. "Xiexie." [Thank you!]

So how do we survive confusion in the classroom? Is there an art to confusion? Let's return to my miserable sophomore year in college, and see if we can use The Waste Land as a guide. I'm going to read these opening lines twice -- why? Because hearing a passage multiple times dramatically increases your comprehension. Then I want you to reflect for a minute, letting your mind wander over the words, maybe making some annotations, becoming aware of what you didn't initially hear or see. Next I want you, with your neighbor, to ask questions to each other about this passage. No answers, no analysis: just questions. Why? Because questions clarify. They focus chaos. Through questions we explore.

What kind of questions do we ask? Start with basic information: Who is speaking? What do we know about the speaker? Who is the speaker talking to? What do we know about the world of this poem? What words or images seem important? Are there contradictions, tensions, paradoxes, and why? Are there surprises in the poem, in how words are used, or in its form?

Here we go:

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,

My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

[At this point in the talk, students and faculty discussed the poem by asking each other questions only—no answers allowed.]

  • What are your questions?
  • Was there a question that evolved from your partner's question?
  • What was it like to only asking questions?
  • How did questions -- not answers -- help you start to understand the poem?

What we've done here is far more productive than my college brain could produce: instead of frantically searching for the answer, you've harnessed your confusion as a way into the poem, rather than letting it block you. What I have learned through being in the classroom with you is that our confusion is actually an invitation from the text to investigate, to engage with it at a more profound level. I had another college professor who at the end of a long seminar remarked: "If you are confused, that's a healthy state of being."

How counter-intuitive, that being confused, being actively confused rather than passively confused, is in fact what lets us journey. Mr. Sanchez, our new physics teacher, showed me this week the poster in his physics classroom, "Confusion is the Sweat of Learning." Or as Isabel Austin wrote last year: "Perhaps the most important lesson I have ever learned at St. Andrew's is to direct my confusion into productivity, to redirect negativity into something that can result in growth."

But why are we so intellectually bewildered at St. Andrew's? When I asked a few of my colleagues how they viewed confusion's role in their classrooms, here is what they told me:

Mr. Gilheany: "There are things of which we are sure, and we are so sure of these things that we don't even realize that they are questionable, testable statements. They are simply the background of the world. Then someone makes a claim that brings one of these understandings under scrutiny. Not only are we faced with a question...but we are faced with a question we did not know would be a question. This can be nerve-wracking.... [However,] we learn when we are meeting something new....confusion is not a detour on the way to learning -- it is learning."

Ms. Pressman: "I think confusion is a natural byproduct of being in that exciting -- and scary -- liminal space between what you know (or think you know) and what you're newly discovering: in other words, that space where you're learning. So confusion is a necessary part of the process of coming to understand something in a complex and nuanced way....One of my favorite quotations comes from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia: 'It's the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.'"

Mr. Sanchez: "I truly believe that confusion is the NECESSARY pathway towards intellectual enlightenment. That is, some confusion must exist in order to intellectually leap from what is known to what is unknown....The essential question is: how long will you stay on the path of confusion? I think this depends on two things: 1) how resourceful you are, and 2) the method(s) by which you set out to learn. These two criteria are what, in my mind, distinguish destructive confusion from constructive confusion."

Mr. McGiff: "....Confusion is a place of "in between" -- that place between "not knowing" and the journey, through pratfall, of dawning awareness that follows. It is that place between not knowing or not caring and, given a push, an experience, a deux ex machina's shifting of design -- and suddenly comfort is gone and the necessity to confront that which is new, strange, potentially threatening is paramount and intimidating. This can be a frightening place."

Dr. Hyde (another new physics teacher): "I came to accept -- very gradually, and with difficulty -- that confusion was a good thing. Society isn't enormously open about admitting that confusion is a crucial part of the learning journey, which is a shame. But eventually I realized that if I was confused, I was going in the right direction, and that it was only after I had spent a good deal of time scratching my head that I felt I made a big leap in my understanding. It's such a rewarding feeling to work at something relentlessly until it clicks, and that's probably one of the big reasons I love being a scientist! There is a quote I love, which comes from the famous American theoretical physicist John Wheeler, who said: 'If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it.'"

What these teachers crystallized for me is that confusion is the foundation of our education. The words they used to describe this mental quagmire were all about growth, learning and movement. Another contradiction these teachers illuminated is that we stay confused when we consider only one perspective. IV Form students studied the danger of a single story this week as we heard Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk and read her short story, "A Private Experience." Ironically, seeing more grants us deeper comprehension than when we consider only one solution, one static interpretation.

It would be nice if life and school were black and white, without the gray, without ambiguity. But life is complex -- just ask Shakespeare's Hamlet, or Toni Morrison's Sethe, two literary characters who long for an easier, simpler existence, who battle against their unreliable worlds that seem intentionally to attack them in their narrow approach to existence. During adolescence, your world is perpetually in flux. While in high school, your minds are "expanding," precariously revealing to you more possibilities -- more questions, as Mr. Gilheany warned, you "did not know would be a question."

Furthermore, we live in a residential school teeming with people different from us, and different from our neighborhoods at home. Half the student body comes to St. Andrew's through the remarkable help of financial aid. Almost 40% are students of color; 20% of you are international; you represent 18 foreign countries and 26 states. Such diversity is dynamic, vital, unbalancing, humbling. Remember Adichie's revelation of the "danger of a single story." Therefore, St. Andrew's manifests confusion because we engage with difference, finding ourselves in places and people we didn't imagine possible.

How do we face what seems so mysterious in our classes? How do we convert destructive confusion into constructive confusion?

My first suggestion is to listen to yourself as you read. Figure out why you are confused. Being able to identify what's obscure is a significant step towards understanding. Re-read the passage, because you can't absorb all that material on a first glance. Be patient as you listen to yourself, as you venture into your relationship with the book. In David Auburn's play, Proof, the father tells his distraught daughter: "Let's back off the problem, let it breathe, come at it again when it's not looking." Remember the probing questions you posed about The Waste Land. Questions focus, sharpen, clarify what's enigmatic.

Secondly, we need to annotate -- not merely underline, but actually converse with the book. We start to live inside Hamlet's words, his skin, his soul. Our scratches on the page become a palimpsest, a fusion of us with Sethe, Gatsby, Heathcliff, Macbeth, Levin, Anna, Esch, Elizabeth Bennet, Othello. So again with The Waste Land: I'm noticing a bunch of words like "breeding," "mixing," "stirring," "covering," "feeding." I'll circle and visibly link them. These words seem alive, animated -- so in the margin I write that idea. In the last line the two parts of "read" and "go south" don't fit. I might have arrows to symbolize that conflict. These scribbles become a visual map of my embryonic conjectures; it's another way to lean into the poem, another path to hold the confusion and explore it.

Thirdly, we must take full advantage of class discussion. When you read at night, you listened to the text, and then to your own questions. Now in class discussion, you have teammates with whom to collaborate, wrestle, clarify. You immediately avoid the danger of a single story, as you witness many perspectives. At its core, class discussion isn't about getting to one place, or where the teacher wants to go: instead, it's fleshing out untried theories, approaches, meanings. If there was just one answer to Hamlet, we'd never teach it again; so discussion isn't about "trial and success." It's about temporary failure -- "trial and error" -- that builds together. Each of us contributes, because we actually don't know what we're creating. It's happening right there in front of us; it isn't a preordered or fabricated, teacher-owned answer. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote: "And what we said of it became a part of what it is." Which is exactly what happens in authentic class discussion: what we say, unknown to any of us before class started, becomes part of the tapestry, the narrative, birthed that day.

My favorite moments in a seminar happen when a student confesses, "This may be totally wrong, but..." -- because that student has honored his doubt; she's risked out of her silence into the collective scholarship; he's asserted his elemental curiosity to step into the labyrinth. And we are there to affirm, to encourage, to wonder. Here's how one student in my English class last year described it: "Our class discussions were without boundaries...through these discussions, I learned to be comfortable with my confusion, comfortable with not having a clear answer. The room would light up when one of us made a good point, or asked a good question, and I always felt like our classroom was a little haven of support and love for both each other and the literature we read."

My fourth recommendation is that we have to write into the confusion with our journals and papers. This is our chance to imagine, to scratch, to ponder -- but we can only do that by writing, by pounding out words on paper or the screen. To stare at the paper or screen literally creates nothing. But if you write into what's uncertain, join it rather than battle against it, the book begins to accept you. It's like what we are told in Driver's Ed about skidding on an icy road: turn into the skid instead of fighting it. As counter-intuitive as it seems, drive into the confusion, write about what confounds you, seize the puzzle as a prompt from the text to explore.

As you move from annotations to journals to drafts to a final copy, don't settle for the superficial revisions of spelling, grammar and edits. Instead, keep asking "So what?" about your argument and analysis. You must respect what the book is still saying to you.

Am I crazy asserting that the text is speaking to us, as if the book is a living being communicating to us? Yes, and yes. There's a mystical presence inside these words written last year or three thousand years ago. It's there for each of us to behold. Furthermore, as you empower your confusion through writing, you will grasp something sustaining in your own words. You and Shakespeare; you and Toni Morrison; you and Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Junot Diaz, Nathan Englander and Colson Whitehead all share this language, this vehicle of expression. The way you write, the words you choose, the words you put next to each other can transform the world and the lives of those who read your sentences. Your written style proclaims your character the same way colors announce Van Gogh.

Some of my English 3 students last year encountered such a relationship between themselves, the literature and their writing:

  • Catherine An '18: "Even though the Song of Solomon assignment...was one of the most challenging topics that I had to confront in my writing career, wrestling with the contradictions enabled me to recognize myself as a writer. Through the complexity of the text, I endeavored to push myself to new heights with my thinking. [While] I was still confused by the end of my paper, I felt good about the thinking I presented on the paper....I have become almost fearless in addressing my confusion and I am now embracing the complexity of texts."
  • Isabel Austin '18: "I think the moment at which I realized how much this course was going to push me was when I got feedback on my journal of "The Second Coming." I vividly remember doing this assignment -- writing it without any extreme intensity or discomfort...failing to push myself to the extent that I now know is necessary. The result of this journal was the lowest grade I have ever gotten in an English class. In many ways, I consider this journal to have been a pivotal experience for me because it pushed me out of my comfort zone....Without this awakening, I would have spent the year basking in mediocrity rather than stretching myself...For my next journal I spent an hour in the library in extreme discomfort -- I was confused...[because] I was attempting to 'embrace this confusion' for the first time. It was counter-intuitive, difficult, but most of all rewarding."
  • Ben Covell '18: As the year began it was difficult to understand and find the greater meanings behind some of the text that we worked with, but in time and with practice, I was able to see how I needed to think differently in order to attack the text in a different way. I think that I was too focused on seeing the text in one light, specifically the first light; I saw it, thus severely limiting my potential in my thinking and my writing. As I began to approach the text differently, with questions and new ideas, it began to open up and expose some deeper meanings and themes, providing a more interesting reading.
  • Zach Ewing '18: In my final copy of my "Pastoralia" paper, my argument was not simply that the speaker developed. It was not simply why the speaker developed. Instead, it took the previous considerations into effect and argued why the speaker's developments and reasons for development were important in the novel and in the world.

For these students and their classmates, writing enabled them to wrestle with literature. Writing gave marrow to their perceptions. Writing began to illustrate to them their own identity, their own voice, their own mettle within their chiseled sentences. They welcomed this intense, demanding, occasionally exhausting process because the result was a larger landscape of knowledge, as well as a recognition of themselves as writers, as artists, as creators.

Lastly, we must appreciate, even revere, that while this experience will be strenuous, we will, nevertheless, persist in this quest, awed and humbled by what we can still know. Tim Lan '18 captured this creed last May: "Throughout this year, I realized that writing is so hard, so challenging, and so time-consuming. However, it is also at the same time so engaging, thought-provoking, and rewarding." And a recent alum, Zachary Roach '13, reflecting on how his time at St. Andrew's prepared him to write a senior thesis in college on the nearly inscrutable David Foster Wallace, realized that he had "to give the text (any text) the intellectual respect that it's due -- by acknowledging that we grapple with incredibly complex and sometimes convoluted texts and ideas...that require deep analysis, learning, and unlearning....I learned that if you're not confused when starting to analyze a text, you're not actually authentically engaging with the material."

When I moved to St. Andrew's in 1979, my mother, also a teacher, wrote me a letter I still have, sharing with me her vision of September and the beginning of the academic year. She quoted Major John Wesley Powell, who in 1869, as he embarked down the Grand Canyon and Colorado River, described this adventure as "the journey into the Great Unknown." My hope for us this year as a school is that we can celebrate confusion as that "journey into the Great Unknown." By giving yourself permission to live in the mystery, you gain life skills for the world beyond your St. Andrew's graduation. You will be attuned to your inner questions; you will know how to collaborate graciously. Because you possess an insatiable hunger for justice and equality, you will tenaciously advocate for new narratives to lingering transgressions. And because you relish your incompleteness, you will be generous to others and forever a student.

Our lives will always be complicated. However, our salvation is that we own the response to the confusion. My epiphany from spending the last two months immersed in this essay is that we can redeem our confusion by how we embrace it. We can transform the problematical into the possible. We have that power, that intellectual, artistic, moral and spiritual reserve and resolve. We redeem our confusion by giving ourselves the gift to be challenged.

But I've also realized that paradoxically we can be redeemed by our confusion: we can be saved from ignorance, petulance, fear and narcissism by honoring this moment as a sacred invitation to connect, to wonder, to listen and to be enlightened. We commence this endless, audacious pilgrimage of exploration, empathy, surprise, beauty and joy right now.

Thank you.